In India’s ancient Vedas texts, religious scholars described cannabis as “one of the five most sacred plants.” Cannabis has been a part of India’s religious rituals and festivities for millennia. Ancient Indian Ayurvedic practices used cannabis as an active ingredient in medicines, ranging from digestion problems to blood pressure. Up until the early 20th century, cannabis was widely grown and harvested for its incredibly useful fiber called hemp. Despite the country’s long history of cannabis use, the plant remains illegal except for in government-authorized premises that produce and sell bhang (which can be either ground cannabis balls or a drink made by mixing cannabis in milk), or for research and medicinal purposes.
What is cannabis?
Cannabis refers to a group of three plants with psychoactive properties, known as cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. The plant contains more than 120 components known as cannabinoids. The most understood cannabinoids found in a cannabis plant are cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC). THC is a controlled substance and has psychotropic ingredients in it which gives the user a ‘high’. CBD is non-intoxicating and has a number of lawful uses including for medicine, beauty products, furniture and fuel. Marijuana and hemp are both varieties of the cannabis plant, but are different in a number of ways. The plant grows wild throughout India’s Himalayan foothills and the adjoining plains, from Kashmir in the west to Assam in the east. This accessibility and abundance of cannabis presents India with the unique opportunity to harness the plant for economic growth.
Regulation of Cannabis in India Today
Cannabis is misunderstood legally and industrially in India. Under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985, trade and consumption of both cannabis resin (charas) and the bud (ganja), are illegal and anyone found with them could face up to 20 years imprisonment. There is also a strict ban on cannabis (including hemp) production in India. Although some powers are given to the state government to grant licenses to cultivate cannabis under certain circumstances (such as for research and medicinal use), relatively few research organizations have obtained them. In fact, only the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand regions, which are both in northern India, have received hemp cultivation licenses.
The Indian cannabis market has gathered significant attention recently, with various activists/NGOs filing court petitions demanding legalization of cannabis. They argue that the medicinal benefits of cannabis are hard to ignore, and the ideal climatic conditions for cannabis cultivation have the potential to boost the Indian economy and create millions of jobs. One of these NGOs is the Great legalization Movement, which is working to legalize the use of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes in India. In the summer of 2019, the Delhi High Court admitted a writ petition filed by GLM seeking decriminalisation of cannabis under the NDPS. The public interest litigation argues that the grouping of cannabis with other chemical drugs under the NDPS Act is “arbitrary, unscientific and unreasonable.” Although originally planned to be heard in February 2020, the hearing has been pushed back to May 1, 2020.
There is also traction among some government officials for the legalization of cannabis. Officials including Maneka Gandhi and Tathagata Satpathy have spoken in favor of cannabis decriminalization. In November 2019, Madhya Pradesh, the second largest state in India, decided to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and industrial purposes. As one of the poorest states in the country, it is hoped that the legalization will attract new businesses to the fore. Even more recently, it was announced in February 2020 that the BJP government in Manipur is also considering the legalization of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.
The cannabis industry
Medicinal cannabis is one of the fastest emerging markets globally. The key focus for the medical cannabis industry is the research and development of new and existing products, technologies for cultivation, extraction and manufacturing, delivery mechanisms, genetic composition of cannabis and combinations of cannabinoids, and ultimately research and trials regarding the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis for treatment of particular conditions or illnesses.
A number of promising Indian cannabis start-ups have arisen in recent years, some of whom are collaborating in order to grow in the domestic market.
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Despite being a trusted ingredient in the treatment of various ailments for thousands of years, the use of cannabis in modern medicine is restricted by India’s outdated cannabis laws. Although legalization is still some way off, the rising number of cannabis and hemp start-up companies, and the growing popular support for the plant’s legalization, is encouraging. Considering the medical and economic reasons in favour of legalizing cannabis, it may not be long before the Indian Government unlock the full potential that legalization would bring. For now, it will be interesting to track the success of India’s first medical cannabis clinic, and whether it will pave the way for others clinics to open across the country.