Hemp without the high: Legal side still smoky, but cannabis startups eye areas from fabric to medicine

The legality of cannabis use in India has been a subject matter of debate from the British rule to as recent as 2017. But India is finally warming up to R&D in this area.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: February 20, 2018 3:16:23 pm
cannabis bulb of ideas Medical use of the drug in India is a few years away on account of requisite trials and approvals.

In April 2017, when the Central government and the Ministry of Health and Welfare issued the first-ever research licence to grow cannabis to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR – IIIM) in collaboration with Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), it was the start of something unprecedented. Cannabis startup Boheco was banking on the revival of cannabis to improve research, reduce drug abuse and aid cancer patients. Since November 14, 1985, when the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act came into force in India, the use of cannabis, with the exception of bhang, has gone underground.

Boheco began in 2013 and has been manufacturing and marketing merchandise fashioned out of hemp fibre and working extensively with government departments to help carve out a space for industrial and medical utilisation of cannabis in India. “There was a perception of blanket ban on this commodity. Nobody wanted to work with it because it is perceived as banned,” says Avnish Pandya, co-founder, Boheco. All their work has come in for attention and the startup was recently able to raise Rs 6.25 crore in funding from a group of investors led by Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Sons and Rajan Anandan, Managing Director of Google India.

The documented use of cannabis in India dates back to the Vedic period. In the Atharva-veda, the ‘bhang’ plant finds a notable mention as one of nature’s five sacred, distress-relieving plants. Consumption of cannabis in colonial India was found to be so extensive that the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission consisting of Indian and British medical experts determined in 1894 that its use was very ancient, had some religious sanction, and was harmless in moderation. Stopping short of recommending a complete ban on its consumption, the panel concluded that it could potentially push consumers towards more dangerous narcotics. Until 1985, cannabis derivatives in India — bhang, charas and ganja — were regulated by the various state excise departments and legally sold by licensed shops.

Abhishek Rastogi, Partner at the law firm Khaitan and Co., explains: “The NDPS Act banned the production and sale of cannabis resin and flowers, but permitted the use of the leaves and seeds, allowing the states to regulate the latter.” So, crucially, the Act does not totally shut down the possibility of cannabis cultivation for medical, scientific, horticulture and industrial purposes, provided the state governments issue a licence to that end.

Over the past few years, Boheco has been actively prototyping a number of products for their Hemp textile business and working with regulators at the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to formally recognise hemp as a food item in the form of hemp seed, seed oil and protein. While studying the feasibility of Uttarakhand for production, given its long history of hemp, the startup has partnered with the Lucknow-based Council of Scientific & Industrial Research – National Botanical Research Institute (CSIR-NBRI) for its expertise in opium breeding. Research is currently underway towards developing stable, low-THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive compound responsible for the ‘high’) varieties of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.

“The fabric produced from hemp is very high quality — it is crisp, skin friendly and highly comfortable. Hemp is also highly suitable as a technical fibre and it can be easily cultivated in hilly areas,” says Dr B K Behera, Director of Department of Textile Technology at IIT Delhi, who has been collaborating with Boheco and industrial groups on a research project to develop a processing line for hemp fibre to produce yarn. While leading world producers like China and France have a systematic, mechanised process in place for large scale extraction of hemp fibre, India is currently in the initial phases of developing and customising such a technology that will render high quality, commercial hemp yarn production viable. Boheco has been investing resources in this direction, while also partnering with textile players like Arvind Mills and Vardhman Mills in India and the Netherlands-based Bedrocan to understand the fibre’s potential on a large scale.  

In November 2016, the Uttarakhand government announced plans to hand out licences to farmers allowing them to cultivate cannabis solely for industrial purposes, with the government as the sole buyer. “Everything depends on whether we have the right seed and the right regulation,” Pandya says. Theoretically, he thinks that if someone succeeds in developing a 0.3 percent THC variety, they could get a license in Uttarakhand for commercial cultivation this year. But realistically this would take longer.

The hemp-based products sold in the country thus far by companies like the Orissa-based HempCann are generally imported wholly or produced from raw material imported from China. “It has to grow in 1000-2000 acres to be industrially viable in India,” says Pandya. “Though the policy is ready [in Uttarakhand], the standardisation of the seed is still in process,” he explains.

There are also medical uses for hemp, especially in relieving pain from cancer. Researchers often refer to the cannabis plant as a treasure chest of useful chemical compounds, other than the infamous THC. The most researched among these today is cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD — a non-psychoactive component with identified medical applications. There is a large unmet medical need in India, in case of pain management of chronic illness like terminal, stage 3 cancer. The pain can be so severe that even morphine doesn’t work,” says Dr. Ram Vishwakarma, Director of CSIR-IIIM, referring to CBD as the most potent pain blocker. It is therefore no surprise that medical cannabis typically gets a favorable opinion from oncologists.

The institute had approached the Jammu and Kashmir government for a legal license to cultivate cannabis for medical research and product development. “Once we received the go ahead, Boheco approached with a desire to carry it forward with us. As a research organisation, we cannot handle the marketing aspect — so this is how the two came together in agreement,” says Dr Vishwakarma.

“The United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has approved five new cannabis-derived drugs for cancer pain due to this property after Phase 3 trials,” says Dr Vishwakarma, adding, “Another deadly disease is epilepsy in children. A CBD-based drug is the only drug available for that.” In addition to cancer pain and epilepsy, the institute will be focusing research on the medical application of cannabis for the genetic disease, sickle-cell anemia, which causes bouts of severe pain and silently affects a few crore people in India.

CBD formula cannabis leaf Thinkstock Image.

Cannabis has been recognised for its medical use in 29 out of 51 US States, Canada, Australia and a significant number of another 20-odd countries across the world. In India, however, cannabis-derived drugs are unavailable, illegal and cannot be prescribed by doctors.

In case of opium cultivation, once the license has been issued to the farmer, the government acts as the facilitator as well as the sole buyer of the produce. The produce is then sold to industries for production of opium-derived drugs for medical end-use. The same should be allowed for cannabis, Dr Vishwakarma says.

Medical use of the drug in India is a few years away on account of requisite trials and approvals. Significantly, public institutions like All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Tata Memorial Center and National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) have already showed interest in researching the potential of cannabis derived medicines and conducting trials. Despite wild and plentiful availability of cannabis, there are again no standardised varieties for medical research. To kickstart this process, Boheco and CSIR – IIIM have initiated the cultivation of a number of accessions of the plant in the institute’s experimental farm in Jammu for biochemical analysis, with the aim of selecting CBD-rich varieties.

cannabis plant in farm Picture of Cannabis cultivation at CSIR-Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu.

“The legality of cannabis use in India has been a subject matter of debate from the British rule to as recent as 2017,” says Rastogi. “Our foreign-influenced laws never took into account that cannabis has been used for medicinal and relaxational purposes in India for thousands of years,” says Romesh Bhattacharjee, former Narcotics Commissioner of India and an advisor to Boheco. “Theirs (Boheco) is a very good effort and they are doing it within the legal framework. But for them to get it off the ground without running into problems from enforcement authorities, laws around cannabis will have to be liberalised,” he adds.

Quoting the recent cannabis legislations in developed countries like the US, Union minister Maneka Gandhi on July 29, 2017 suggested that legalising cannabis for medical purposes could be beneficial in India. Further, Lok Sabha members like BJD’s Tathagata Satpathy from Dhenkanal and AAP leader Dr Dharamvira Gandhi from Patiala have publicly voiced support for decriminalising cannabis possession in moderate quantities. The latter introduced a Private Member’s Bill in 2017 to amend the NDPS Act, seeking decategorisation of soft intoxicants like cannabis from the segment comprising of artificially produced hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, smack etc., which could be tabled in the Parliament’s February session.

Meanwhile, Boheco is expecting another research license to grow cannabis very soon, this time from the state of Uttar Pradesh. They are also planning on launching their FSSAI-approved, hemp-based food products later this year. The Ayurveda-based products maker, Patanjali, too, according to a recent report, has interest in tapping into cannabis. India’s cannabis economy may just be on the brink of getting serious.

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