India cannabis industry 2019

Ancient texts from the sub-continent show cannabis use in rituals, festivals and Ayurvedic medicine for more than 2,000 years. Although some say the plant originated on the steppes of Central Asia, others say it is no less native to India. Certainly India, especially in popular culture, is regarded as its home. The Latin name Cannabis indica for one of the principal varieties is indicative of how close and how strong is the association of cannabis and India

That it was no ordinary plant in ancient times is suggested by one of the Sanskrit words for it: ‘vijaya’, meaning victory or conquest -- and, indeed, it still grows, triumphantly wild, throughout the country’s many states that abut the Himalayas, flouting the law, for, though ubiquitous, it remains prohibited under the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, and consuming it can lead to jail for six months or a fine. In India, cannabis is presently planted legally on only a few restricted plots, but that circumstance is due to change.

Legal or not, villagers use its seeds in their chutneys and its fiber for making clothes. In the form of ‘bhang’ (leaves and seeds) it is prominent among the five “plant kingdoms” of India, and essential to certain religious rites: Shiva’s favorite food, for example, is cannabis, and some devotees use it, in the form of bhang, in their worship, offering it to the deity. 

It is a central ingredient in various Ayurvedic pain relievers and aphrodisiacs.

Use of cannabis by Indo-Aryan speakers spread their word for it (kanab, or some variation thereof) through much of Europe and Asia. Greeks in classical times called it κάνναβις (cannabis) after a Scythian or Thracian word, which was likely the source for such English words as ‘canvas’ (via 13th century Anglo-French ‘canevaz’ or ‘hempen fabric’) and perhaps the word ‘hemp’ itself. 

Owing to its psychotropic and physical properties it was essential to Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia. ‘Ayurveda’ (आयुर्वेद) is Sanskrit for ‘knowledge of life and longevity’, for attainment of which cannabis was a concomitant. Sanskrit makes distinctions similar to the distinction in English between ‘marijuana’ and ‘hemp’: ‘śaṇa’ means ‘a kind of hemp’ (from the forms kana- or kene-) and ‘bhanga’ (probably modern bhang, though some disagree) defines ‘narcotic hemp’. 

Given the evident prominence occupied by the plant in India’s ancient culture, today’s prohibition against cultivation, production, possession, usage and transport must be regarded as anomalous. Some argue it is mere window-dressing: “Just about everybody smokes marijuana in India,” an Indian journalist observed late last year

But is that really so? The UN’s 2016 World Drug Report cited a ‘best estimate’ of 3.5 percent among those aged 15 - 65 -- the figure marginally greater than the year 2000‘s 3.2 percent -- and noted no increased prevalence of Indian drug use. Interest in cannabis centers on developing medical and industrial markets. No restrictions are placed on import of raw hemp if in compliance with the country’s phytosanitary measures.

Prior to 1985, cannabis derivatives in India, which include resin (charas), flower buds (ganja) and seeds and leaves (bhang), were regulated by state excise departments and legally sold by licensed shops.

The 1985 Narcotic Drugs Act distinguishes cannabis in the form of charas or ganja, but excludes bhang -- the seeds and leaves of which are ground and used making traditional comestibles, legally sold by licensed shops throughout the country (excepting Assam and Maharashtra, where state legislation bans it; Gujurat formerly banned bhang but delisted it in 2017). 

Hemp manufacturers in India presently rely heavily on imported raw hemp from Europe, North America and China for producing ropes, mats, bags and pulas (hempen shoes).

Provisions in the NDPS Act allow state governments to permit cannabis cultivation for medical, scientific, horticulture and industrial purposes; and now, as cannabis sheds its pariah status, a few states are issuing licenses for cultivation of mostly low-THC hemp varieties (0.3 % threshold) used in research, breeding and manufacturing of industrial, food-grain and medicinal products.

In April 2017, the Indian government, through the Ministry of Health and Welfare, issued the first research license for growing cannabis to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR – IIIM), in collaboration with the Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO). BOHECO and CSIR – IIIM have begun trials with a number of CBD-rich accessions at the Institute’s experimental farm and research station in Jammu, with special permissions granted by the Jammu and Kashmir state government.

In November 2018 details of their research were announced, revealing that trials focused on developing cost-effective cannabis-based drugs for treating cancer, epilepsy and sickle cell anaemia. 

Clinical trials on cancer patients are planned for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences’ Tata Memorial Centre. Animal trials have been conducted thus far, while researchers seek permission for human trials from the Drugs Controller General of India.  As the supply of morphine is strictly regulated in India it is expensive, so many poverty-stricken terminal patients die in agony in hospitals, and rural areas without medical care. Researchers think cannabis derivatives could provide a cheaper alternative and allay such suffering. The Institute’s 0.4 hectare plot is reportedly the only place in India -- as of December 2018 -- where psychotropic cannabis is grown legally for the purpose of research. 

Tata Centre staff believe such derivatives are “much, much more powerful than morphine”, and, unlike the latter, are useful treating neurological disorders and “a whole range of diseases”, while also arresting mental debility arising from Alzheimer’s Disease. At a November 2018 conference in New Delhi, scientists and physicians urged the government “to rethink the ban on marijuana and relax regulations, as in Canada and the Netherlands,” thereby allowing cannabis-based medicines to be made available. 

In July 2018 Uttarakhand became the first Indian state this century to permit large-scale commercial cultivation of industrial hemp: license was afforded the Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA) to plant cannabis on 1,000 hectares. The IIHA will also develop a seed bank, aiming to cultivate hemp across 10,000 hectares within five years for textile fiber; state policy is to expand cultivation across 100,000 hectares

Aside from medical hemp collaborations, BOHECO will market Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) approved hemp seed-based food products manufactured from licensed crops cultivated in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, where the government in October, 2018 announced permission of low-THC hemp cultivation for medicinal and industrial use. 

It is reported that the state government of Himachal Pradesh is considering legalization of cannabis not only for hemp but for recreational use (a push, perhaps, to legalize the illicit cannabis for which the state is famous).

A delegation of women there met agriculture minister Dr Ram Lal Markanda in December 2018, requesting cannabis cultivation be legalized on the pattern of Uttarakhand. 

Health-food and Ayurveda product suppliers such as Orissa-based HempCann and New Delhi-based Patanjali Ayurved are now entering consumer markets, while research into the drug’s pychotropic properties -- with an eye towards therapeutic use -- has been undertaken by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS).

Meanwhile, as no low-THC cannabis strains are native to India, other researchers work to develop them while avoiding genetic modifications that interfere with nature and affect plant immunity. India, they aver, has many original strains “99% disease and pest-free”, so they use only Indian strains and breed for low-THC naturally, without changing plant DNA. Their aim is to develop strains suited to the environment of each locale. 

BOHECO, in promoting hemp, notes that, compared to cotton, hemp requires 400 times less water -- but grows eight times faster, without pesticides or herbicides, and has higher output per acre. Farmers also reap more harvests per year. Hemp fiber, according to the company, is the strongest natural fiber known. Finally, cannabis grows on barren and hilly lands with little care.

They say it can be used to “produce almost 30,000 products.” 

India’s federalized system of central government allows state governments considerable leeway legally. Thus movements have been mounted in a number of states to liberalize restrictions on cannabis. They include: Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Andhara Pradesh (which state is also noted for illicit ganja) and Telengana.

Areas famous for illicit cannabis include: Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh; Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh; Pederu district of Andhra Pradesh; and Malkangiri district of Odisha.

In sum, Indian interest in cannabis presently is “mushrooming” as entrepreneurs and the public sector invest heavily in research and development aiming to “boost the market”.