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Covid-19 pandemic a golden opportunity to 'move away' from tobacco to marijuana

By Rit Nanda* 
Every year, on the last day of May, the United Nations member states observe the World No-Tobacco Day. It encourages people to give up tobacco and informs them of its health hazards. This day has been observed since 1987 and yet we find the ubiquity of chewing and smoking tobacco across our society. So, where has this push failed? 
Let us take a hypothesis, that as a smoking or chewing form, tobacco has found such wide popularity despite its known negative effects on health because as an addictive substance, which is mildly intoxicating, it contributes to a sense of euphoria and happiness in an otherwise dreary life.
Emotional comfort often therefore overpowers any sense of momentary physical discomfort and when the physical degradation manifests on a grand scale, it is almost always irreversible. Tobacco as a substance is also easy to carry and does not alter the outward behaviour of a person as certain other substances like alcohol do.
Unless consumed it huge quantities, a person can remain in possession of his or her faculties even after consuming tobacco while enjoying the mild and momentary high that comes with it. Hence, it remains such a popular substance of consumption across the world. Therefore, despite many people knowing the associated risks with tobacco consumption, they continue to keep taking it.
Tobacco is widely available in India. From figures taken last year, more than one third of the adult population in India consumes tobacco. Tobacco is a leading cause for non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease in India, which account for over half of all deaths in the country. Smoking itself accounts for a million deaths in India annually out of a total of more than seven million globally.
This paints a grim picture of the reality confronting us as it relates to smoking tobacco consumption in India. And while smoking tobacco is more harmful than smokeless tobacco, the chemicals from chewing tobacco can also contribute to oral cancer. So, from a public health perspective, the imperatives to move away from tobacco are strong.
Furthermore, the pandemic has further exacerbated this situation. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan requested all states and union territories to curb the spread of tobacco during the pandemic. He highlighted multiple problems that were posed due to the sale of tobacco. He said that tobacco products increase saliva output which increases the urge to spit and spitting in public can increase the risk of contagion in diseases like the novel coronavirus, tuberculosis, or swine flu.
In addition, retail outlets that sell tobacco can also become large gathering places which can contribute to the spread of the disease during a pandemic such as this. So, in the immediate future too, it remains a hazard to return to selling tobacco.
But tobacco remains a widely popular drug. It would also be remiss to forget that many farmers and small business owners, like your own local betel leaf shop, are dependent on the income generated from the sale of tobacco products. To bring a ban would decimate their livelihoods.
Source: PRNewswire
Just banning tobacco would create too big a disruption in the livelihood of people who depend upon it for economic survival. Yet, not banning it creates a huge economic loss, as measured by the spending on healthcare due to this. This is where the importance of cannabis (marijuana) comes in. 
Research has found that medicinal cannabis (marijuana) can have a positive effect against the spread of the novel coronavirus
It is a milder drug compared to tobacco, as determined by its effects on cumulative global human health, and if it replaces tobacco throughout the entire supply chain, it gives those dependent upon tobacco currently for sustenance, a chance to switch over. Exports can be switched over as per demand in foreign markets as well, while creating a supply side push for cannabis from the Indian market.
Cannabis has always been part of Indian society. In fact, as early as 2000 BC, the Atharvaveda, one of the guiding books of Hinduism mentioned smoking in the form of cannabis. Tobacco, on the other hand, was introduced only in the 17th century in India; a gap of approximately 3700 years!
Yet, the one introduced recently has become more prevalent in our culture than the substance we always used to smoke. Use of cannabis, especially in the form of a drink called Bhang, is also popular across religions in India: Hindus and Sikhs consume it during Holi and Hindu Sadhus and Muslims Sufis consume it to achieve transcendental states.
Furthermore, during this pandemic, research has also found that medicinal cannabis can have a positive effect against the spread of the novel coronavirus. It is important to note that nicotine has also been shown to have the same effect, though the latter causes cancer while the former is being researched to alleviate cancer.
Again, research is on-going in this field, and as a non-medical professional, the writer does not prescribe medical use of the drug, but this is just an effort to highlight how cannabis is now being seen in a positive light.
Additionally, psychoactive properties of this drug apart, it works on the assumption that adults are personally responsible for their choices and therefore, just as those who consume tobacco recreationally do it within a certain limit so as to not impair regular bodily or mental functions, the same wisdom would enable them to consume cannabis responsibly.
Cannabis was banned in India after independence due to many reasons including our commitment to international treaties. Various states banned them further and even some states which allowed some forms put in place various license requirements.
Setting aside any discussion or debate on politics of those laws, from a purely financial and supply chain point of view, our country is struggling with tobacco as a cash crop vis-à-vis the cost it places on society due to its consumption. It is here that cannabis as a replacement can be researched and seen whether it can minimise disruption to growers, sellers and users while lessening the burden on the health system.
---
*M.Sc. energy, trade and finance, City University, London; procurement, logistics and human resource supervisor and consultant

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