25 January, 2021

Pot Luck

India’s vote at a UN body to ‘decriminalise’ cannabis could be a game-changer for research on the plant’s medicinal properties

Photograph by Shutterstock
Pot Luck

On December 2, India joined 26 other nations of the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND), the United Nations’s main drug policy-making organ, to vote for removing cannabis from the list of dangerous drugs and reclassify it as one with medical or therapeutic benefits. The decision came 59 years after cannabis was placed alongside opioids like heroin and desomorphine, and strictly controlled globally.

The watershed moment, described by the UN as one that would open the door to “recognising the medicinal and therapeutic potential” of cannabis derivatives, went largely unnoticed in India. Back home, a majority of Indians continue to get their kick from the ongoing kerfuffle over actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide, his partner Rhea Chakraborty’s alleged role in procuring marijuana for him and a Narcotics Control Bureau probe that would have everyone believe that Bollywood ‘A listers’ are part of some grand reefers’ club.

The vote in Vienna is also a major win for medical researchers and some lawmakers in India who have been pushing for a comprehensive research and development policy for studying medicinal uses of the stigma-ridden cannabis plant. And a win also for entrepreneurs who have in recent years invested heavily in start-ups linked to the nearly 10 billion-dollar global cannabis industry.

For over three decades, the five-bladed leaf has been a banned substance under India’s Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. This, even as several Indian states—like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana—have adopted policies allowing industrial and medicinal exploitation of cannabis though cultivation of the plant remains illegal in most parts of the country. The CND vote, cannabis proponents in India believe, will help recast India’s collective mindset towards the plant and its derivatives. It may also propel Modi’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat pitch by allowing entrepreneurs and agriculturists and horticulturists in cannabis-rich territories of Himachal, Uttarakhand, the Northeastern states and Kerala to partake in the internationally growing cannabis industry.

For over thirty years, cannabis has been a banned substance under India’s NDPS Act.

Dr Atul Ambekar, a professor at the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre and Department of Psychiatry in AIIMS, feels that India’s policy reform on cannabis use needs to be “de-linked from the CND vote” since the country’s stand was “not different from our stated position on the usefulness of cannabis under domestic laws”. Ambekar says res­cheduling of cannabis essentially brings out the drug from the hitherto tagged category of “very harmful and useless and places it into a segment of harmful but useful drug.” Ambekar tells Outlook that India’s position on cannabis has always been that it is a useful drug which needs to be studied for its medicinal and cultural importance but efforts to research the plant were hampered by the 1961 Convention.

The NDPS Act criminalises cannabis use under the classifications of charas (the separated resin of cannabis), hashish oil, ganja (the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant) or any mixture, with or without any neutral material, of these derivatives. The Act also bans cultivation of cannabis and “manufactured drugs” made from “medicinal cannabis”—the only exception now, all­owed by the AYUSH ministry, is for use of cannabis derivatives in various Ayurveda remedies.

Proponents of medicinal and industrial use of cannabis have for long claimed that the substance was vilified by the CND without thorough scientific assessment. The cannabis research lobby has often argued that the Schedule IV tag was the legacy of decades-old, misplaced morals of the West and represented a discredited value system connected to racism and intolerance for indigenous peoples and cultures. The CND vote comes at a time when there has been a reappraisal of cannabis globally with 50-odd countries adopting medicinal cannabis programmes linked to therapies of cancer, epilepsy and other ailments. Canada, Uruguay and 15 US states have also legalised its recreational use.

Dr G. Shreekumar Menon, who heads the Centre for Narcotics & Psychotropic Substances at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, tells Outlook that res­cheduling of cannabis “opens up a massive field of research and development which in due course has the potential of unimaginable economic gains”. Menon explains that there are two strains of cannabis for which separate policies must be drafted as both have a variety of uses. “Hemp, which is the non-narcotic part of the plant, can be used for making fabrics, paper, cosmetics and a whole array of industrial/commercial goods; the leaves and buds which have cannabidiol and Tetrahydrocannabinol (the actual narcotic substance) can be harnessed for medicinal use,” says Menon, ex-director general, National Academy of Customs, Excise & Narcotics.

He cites the examples of Nepal where “an entire legitimate industry of THC-free cannabis products like shoes, socks, clothes, etc. has come up over the past few years” and Turkey where “they have done extensive research on use of hemp and are currently manufacturing bullet-proof hemp jackets that are nine times stronger than steel”.

The two strains of cannabis have spurred several ambitious and fin­ancially rewarding ventures in India in recent years. Vinesh Chandrakant, who set up CBD Store India in June 2019, says his venture, a common platform for different imported brands of hemp and CBD products—edibles, cosmetics, clothing and herbal remedies—is already the “largest cannabis products site in south Asia”. Chandrakant, however, cautions against “half-baked studies and greed for a quick buck which may end up making CBD-based medicines as common as Dolo or Pantocid and place lives at risk”.

Chandrakant says lawmakers must not ‘over-legislate’ cannabis. “In states like Himachal and Uttarakhand, cannabis grows wild and sustains an entire rural economy. If the government legalises cannabis but says it will, as it does with opium, take over cultivation and then give land on contract for growing the plant, this rural economy might just collapse because many poor people will be excluded from such a process.”

A 2018 national survey carried out by the government to determine the ‘extent and pattern of substance use’ had estimated an estimated 3.10 crore cannabis users in India. Extensive research on medicinal use of cannabis may also help with developing de-addiction therapy for this huge chunk of population. The Covid-induced lockdown, which made availability of marijuana and other narcotic derivatives of cannabis difficult to procure for addicts due to curbs on free movement, possibly had the unintended result of many people turning to medicinal cannabis remedies online.

CBD Store India, which has its own panel of medical professionals to counsel consumers and provide them prescriptive CBD remedies, saw a huge spike in the period between June and December in sale of its products.

The Bombay Hemp Company (Boheco), set up by seven graduates in Bombay has been working closely with the central and state governments in an effort to liberalise India’s cannabis policy. With investors like Ratan Tata and former Google India managing director Rajan Anandan, Boheco is also inv­olved with extensive R&D on various cannabis derivatives. Boheco co-founder and director of business, Yash Kotak feels that private players rushing to enter the medicinal cannabis industry “have a greater responsibility now to uphold prevailing regulations on the drug and not take consumers for a ride”. He says a plethora of cannabis products have flooded the Indian market in recent years and “not all may be entirely legit or safe to use, particularly if disclosure about their composition by the sellers is not honest”.

Kotak sees the CND vote as a “major opportunity for boosting R&D in cannabis” and hopes that research endeavours by Boheco and other stakeholders will help the government adopt a more scientific and not moralistic approach towards studying the efficacy of medicinal cannabis. “There is still a lot of work to do,” says Kotak.

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