Cannabis in India: Old laws to take a hit

India has an odd relationship with cannabis. We’ve glorified it in our culture but made discussion of the plant taboo in the modern day. Recent political and social events make it evident that the legislation around cannabis and “hard narcotics” is likely to become increasingly relevant in context to the role cannabis can play in the medical, agricultural and social systems in India. In order to better understand the legal structures that accompany this discussion, InPRA and The Dialogue decided to interact with more than the average college student to see what could be expected and should be expected in the coming years.

Medical Cannabis in India: Worth the fight? Image Source: Earthmed

It’s difficult to estimate how much cannabis is grown in India. In our conversation with Yash Kotak, a Director at Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), we found out that the state of Uttarakhand is the only state in India to come out with a policy towards cultivation of Industrial Hemp with varieties less than 0.3% THC. Since the regulation has just been confirmed  there has been no licensed/legitimate cultivation of the crop yet. He did however add that an estimation made by a former Narcotic Commissioner of India, Mr. Romesh Bhattacharji suggested that there could be nearly  50,000-60,000 acres of wild, feral and cultivated (illegitimate) cannabis in India across all the states.

Invited by BOHECO, The Dialogue represented both parties at  the India Cannabis Analysis Research and Education  (I CARE) Summit 2016 which focussed on a discussion centered around the history, legitimacy and potential of Medical Cannabis in India, with a clear understanding of its sociological implications.  BOHECO has been in constant pursuit to make sure all set regulations are adhered to, while the individuals at the grassroots level i.e. farmers and artisans are empowered with the right tools for development. They wish to put cannabis in a positive light by introducing several agro-based products in the categories of food, clothing, shelter and medicine to the market through fair-trade practices. They’ve helped considerably with the research and connections that went into this piece.

In terms of the medical use of cannabis, there’s a lot that I didn’t know and once we start looking beyond the “narcotics” angle, it’s tough to see why this plant has to be discussed more.  It’s evident that the need to control the production and use of cannabis is one of the first prerequisites in any serious legislation that would be come into existence. When asked about this, what we found out was that “3% of the Indian population has used cannabis, and 25% of that number is reported to harbour cannabis induced disorders that include addiction, psychosis, delusion, hallucination, bronchitis and other Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases,” as per Dr. Alok Agrawal of the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, AIIMS.

If calculated with a very conservative approach, that gives you an approximate 8 to 10 millions Indians with cannabis induced disorders. That’s all of Portugal. Maybe more than two Uruguays. While India’s generous population numbers make this many people a minuscule portion of population, it’s not a small absolute value.

However, if over 30 million users of the plant exist, the prohibition has failed and with it, several industries have suffered. One such industry would be the medical industry.

Medical Use: Is there a real case for it?

While the public sector clearly needs to put in more independent research into this, there is a notable need for an establishment like Bedrocan (Netherlands) which is backed by hard science and led by compassion towards suffering patients. “Most patients that use Medical Cannabis seek each other out through Internet channels and communities. Intriguingly, they do not fall under any particular realm of illness, they tend to span epilepsy, cancer, fibromyalgia and other acute syndromes. What they all have in common, are some key symptoms like chronic pain, insomnia, muscle spasms, poor appetite and the aversion to social interaction. Cannabis-based medicine is known to ease these symptoms. We know this is the case because of the work we put into researching our patients and their needs,” said Dr. Arno Hazekamp.

While looking specifically at the medical use, the national legislative bodies can leverage advantage for work on the medical properties of cannabis by bringing about reform in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985. “The Act is built on a prohibitive system instead of an explorative one. It is time that the situation is reversed. But for that to have the desired positive effect on our medical ecosystem, we will need to bring credibility to Medical Cannabis through tested evidence,” said Dr. A. P. Kala of the Institute for Narcotics Studies and Analysis. And in order to ensure that Medical Cannabis is not produced outside the right enviroment, this is a need to standardise it. “Standardised means defined chemical composition, always available, and strict quality management,” said Mr. Tjalling Erkelens. By doing so, one could confidently provide each patient the highest-grade medication to ease their suffering. “A lot of poor quality cannabis is easily available for consumption. But it is cannabis that was probably grown using harmful pesticides. This is called Street Cannabis and is not in the least therapeutic,” said Dr. Hazekamp.

Sure, it does have it’s benefits but what is the future of Cannabis in India?

According to the team at BOHECO and after their multiple consultations with members of the government and the bureacracy, theres a few things that could happen.

Firstly, the next 2-3 years are crucial in order to provide farmers in rural communities with international standard Low THC seeds with standard high quality fibre and/or seed content through the right genetics based research to develop standard Cannabis varieties. This needs to be done to ensure a degree of economies of scale within the hemp agro-industry which would rival similar economic ecosystems of pre-existing conventional crops.

And then there are industrial benefits. 

Across a broad industrial domain, Yash foresees the development of industrial product lines across multiple phases. In the first phase (the present) the emphasis has been on the development & distribution of low risk, high value Hemp based products developed from natural growing Hemp fibres. These industry segments are majorly focused on the handloom & powerloom textile space for woven (garments) as well as non-woven applications (carpets, rugs).

The second phase (Next 3-5 years) shall be focused on technical prototyping, development & commercial distribution of potential high value industry segments such as green building (Hempcrete), cosmetics, food & nutrition and nanomaterials. The aim is to utilize the forthcoming 5-10 years to establish a spring board for integration of Hemp based material into various new product applications across 7-10 new industries.

Enough about the future, what about the past and all the cultural baggage that comes with cannabis in India?

With respect to the socio-cultural aspect of cannabis’ recreational use across local communities in India, there is a chance that post UNGASS 2019(United National General Assembly Special Session on Drugs) there may be opportunities for re-establishment of data driven information to represent the cultural scenario of cannabis utilization across several Indian communities – as well as the requirement to rework the regulatory system concerning its recreational application for socio-cultural purposes. With a gradual increase in legislative backing by several Indian members of parliament, we anticipate that within the next 5-10 years that this topic’s relevance will be brought to the fore once again courtesy private member bills in Parliament to allow for the decriminalization of the recreational use of cannabis – under certain established pre-conditions.

Wait? Members of Parliaments and legislators support this?

As far as the admission of use of cannabis in India is concerned, virtually no one can deny it’s prevalent use across class and regional structures. If there is an active black market that caters to the needs of the local priest and the village addict, then by admission of the Member of Parliament from Patiala, 3o years of legislation have not worked. The major drug laws of India are the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (1985) and the Prevention of Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (1985). These are in need of change and there is no time like the present. A private member’s bill was approved for this winter session. But to be fair, the entire financial regulatory, legislative and executive has been “a little preoccupied” since the 8th of November. Tathagata Satpathy, who is another MP and the Chief Whip of the BJD (the ruling political party in the Indian state of Odisha) has come forward on many occasions to fight for legalization.

In conclusion, my take on cannabis in India is “Need more research, need to talk about it more”. 

Look away, pot smokers- We’re not advocating recreational use and it’s legalization.

It’s capable of helping with several diseases and there’s enough data to convince relatively more data driven economies to reconsider their stance.  The USA, especially the states of Colorado, Washington and California, has almost indirectly shown the way forward.  As a plant, it can help you build eco-friendly construction material and also help you generate increased income for the farmers community that could do with better cash crops.  Regulate it. You need to. But don’t shut it down.

And it’s not just me who feels this way. To quote the Drug Controller General of India, Dr. G. N. Singh- “I am optimistic that with the right kind of minds working on this task, the potential of this drug to better the lives of our communities may be realised,”.

This article was written with support from BOHECO –

Anmol Soin

Anmol Soin

Managing Editor at InPRA
Anmol Soin has finished his post-graduate education from the University of Oxford and the University of St.Andrews. Anmol will always credit his academic growth to his time at St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

Formerly engaged as a consultant and a researcher for the 14th Finance Commission (Government of India), he has also worked for the Knowledge Partnership Program (IPE Global and UK Government’s Department For International Development).

He was also the Professor for ‘The Economics of International Relations and Geopolitics’ for the final year undergraduates at NMIMS. Having worked at multiple think-tanks, he brings his experiences as a professor and a consultant together to try and frame a comprehensive overview of International Economics for InPRA.
Anmol Soin