Eight-year-old Vedd Raaj has severe epilepsy and autism. His most violent seizures come once a month, triggered by infections he catches due to low immunity. They can last hours.
His parents, Bengaluru-based business consultant Amit and homemaker Rakhi Raj, 34, have been doing the rounds of hospitals, trying to find a doctor that can help him procure cannabis oil. This controversial flowering plant is indigenous to India, but its cultivation is banned because an extract can also be used to produce the intoxicant marijuana.
Yet the Raj family believes it is their son's only hope. There are many within and outside the medical fraternity that would agree with him.
Chemical compounds in cannabis react with cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which control physiological functions such as appetite, pain, nausea and others.
"Studies show that cannabis has a positive effect on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, for instance," says Dr Sameer Kaul, senior consultant on surgical and clinical oncology at Apollo Cancer Institute, New Delhi. "It is also effective in alleviating pain, and symptoms of arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma and neurological conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson's disease."
Instead, Vedd is on increasingly strong doses of allopathic drugs.
"He's been on the drugs since he was six months old, and they are affecting his mental development and motor skills," Amit says.
Cannabis oil is used to treat neurological disorders in the US. But the Raj family can't afford to make that trip. And they believe they shouldn't have to.
So, when Amit and Rakhi heard about India's first Medical Cannabis Conference in Bengaluru, held last month, they decided to attend, and were among 250 at the event.
"The idea is to have a mature, open, scientific discussion between doctors and the public and we were pleasantly surprised to find senior citizens, middle-aged parents and environmentalists in the audience," says organiser Viki Vaurora, 24, an activist and founder of Great Legalisation Movement (GLM), India.
Over the next four weeks, similar conferences will be held in Mumbai and Delhi, as part of a growing drive to have the production and distribution of medical marijuana legalised in India.
Others joining the fight include a group of Bengaluru-based oncologists - eight doctors and scientists who banded together six months ago to collate scientific evidence from around the world and create a white paper that they plan to present to the government.
In Pune, lawyer Aditya Barthakur, 35, filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court in January, asking that the plant be legalised. The court has since issued notices to the Centre and the Maharashtra state government and the Central Bureau of Narcotics, asking them to make themselves respondents in the case; the next hearing is on June 23. The growing momentum of the movement, say advocates, is a result of the democratisation of knowledge and global exposure.
"This generation has access to the internet, to research, and more people are learning about medical marijuana, and talking about it," says Vaurora.
There's an odd contradiction in the Government of India's stand on marijuana. While cultivation and possession is illegal under the stringent Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985, its medicinal use is legal. It's a contradiction that even law enforcement recognises as such.
"If it has proven medical benefits, there should be no problem with its legalisation," says Namdeo Chavan, deputy commissioner of police at Mumbai's Anti-Narcotics Cell. "We have to then clearly define what constitutes a crime and what doesn't, and develop systems to ensure that it is not misused."
This is, in fact, the argument of many of the advocates of medical marijuana.
"Tobacco causes cancer, but is legally and freely available," says Dr Vishal Rao, an oncologist at HealthCare Global Enterprises (HCG), Bengaluru, and part of the oncologists' lobby. "Over the past six months, I have had three patients with cancer whose symptoms have been alleviated by cannabis-based treatment in the US and Canada, after all treatment here failed. It's time India revised and updated its anti-drug laws."
There is another side to the argument.
"Medical marijuana needs to be restricted to just that - an approved medicine," says Dr Samir Parikh, director of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences and National Mental Health Programme at Fortis Healthcare. "Cannabis abuse can lead to psychotic and cognitive disorders, which is why if it is to be used in medicine, it should be available as part of a medicinal tablet or compound that is not available without prescription and is used for only specific conditions."
"Cannabis can act as a gateway drug," adds cognitive and behavioural psychologist Dimple Parekh Safi. "We have seen patients who use marijuana recreationally show symptoms of delusion, anxiety, irrational fear and mood swings. Moreover, once they stop responding to marijuana, they graduate to harder, more harmful drugs."
HOW MEDICAL MARIJUANA WORKS
Cannabis has 450 ingredients, of which 80 are chemical compounds called cannabinoids.
The human brain has cannabinoid receptors, which control physiological processes such as appetite, pain, mood and memory, together called the endocannabinoid system.
The cannabinoids from cannabis interact with the receptors in the brain and work as a smooth muscle relaxant and receptor blocker, alleviating pain, and symptoms of arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma and neurological conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson's disease.