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India’s cannabis economy has a new hope—Patanjali

India’s leading ayurveda-based products maker now wants to ace cannabis research.

Patanjali Ayurved is stepping up studies on the plant’s medicinal and industrial properties, its chief executive Balkrishna told Quartz.

“In ayurveda, since ancient times, parts of cannabis (hemp), for instance, have been used for medicinal purposes. So, we are looking at various formulations. We should ponder over the benefits and positive uses of the cannabis plant,” Balkrishna said over a call.

At its research and development centre in Haridwar, a team of some 200 scientists is looking into the benefits of various indigenous Indian plant species and their extracts for use in medicines and other products. Cannabis is one of them.

The yoga guru Ramdev-led company, which has already made a fortune selling ayurveda-based face cleansers, toothpaste, and detergents, has for a while been looking for new growth avenues. It has now taken a cue from western countries where the legal cannabis economy is booming.

“In western markets, parts of the cannabis plants are being used for fibre for cloth or some kinds of oils. Similarly, we are doing some research to see that the harmful or intoxicating properties (of cannabis) are removed and then it is used,” Balkrishna said.

India, however, is yet to officially recognise the cannabis economy. In other markets such as the US, where the use of the plant is legal in some states, sales of cannabis generated close to $8 billion in 2017.

Cannabis in India

Cannabis cultivation and trade are partially restricted in India.

While its cultivation for industrial purposes (i.e. obtaining fibre such as industrial hemp or for horticultural use) is allowed, consuming it could lead to a jail term of six months or a hefty fine. Overall, its use and legality come under the purview of the finance ministry’s department of revenue and are governed by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985.

There are two main species of cannabis plants, Cannabis sativa L and Cannabis indica. The sativa species contains strong fibre and is used mostly for industrial purposes (like making hemp fibre), while indica has medicinal and recreational uses. The main difference between the two is their tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, content. THC is what determines cannabis’s mind-altering properties and the indica variety contains more of it. In fact, the Indian government encourages the research and cultivation of cannabis with low THC content. The national policy (pdf) on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances even recognises cannabis as a source of biomass, fibre, and high-value oil.

Patanjali is working on these lines, Balkrishna said. For while cannabis’s use is widespread as an intoxicant in India, it’s not widely used industrially. As a result, only a handful of companies and legislators have sought to get it legalised, doing which could also help provide a livelihood to farmers. And an intervention by Ramdev’s firm could surely help the cause.

“There exists a huge market for cannabis in India. A lot of scientific research needs to be done, especially for those who are framing the laws,” said Yash Kotak, founder and director of Mumbai-based startup, The Bombay Hemp Company. Backed by Ratan Tata, this firm has been using hemp fibre to make clothes and hemp seeds for topical oils.

Balkrishna had pushed for cannabis earlier, too. In a 2014 YouTube video, he is seen explaining the medicinal use of the hemp seeds (derived from the cannabis sativa plant).

“The cannabis economy in India is just getting started,” Kotak said. In Ramdev’s Patanjali, it also has a powerful new backer.

The anatomy of the cannabis plant: what is illegal under NDPS Act, what is not?

According to the WHO, 'cannabis' is a generic term used to denote the several psychoactive preparations of the plant Cannabis sativa. Seeds and leaves of the plant — used to make bhang, for example — are outside the ambit of the NDPS Act

At the centre of the storm around the Narcotics Control Bureau’s investigation into the alleged drug trafficking in connection with actor Rhea Chakraborty — given bail by Bombay High Court on October 7 — following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and what has now become an ‘inquiry’ aimed at “uprooting the drug citadel in Bollywood”, is a plant that goes by many names: cannabis, hemp, marijuana or pot.

As potent as various parts of its anatomy may be, not all of them amount to criminality under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985.

What is the cannabis plant?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cannabis is a generic term used to denote the several psychoactive preparations of the plant Cannabis sativa. The major psychoactive constituent in cannabis is Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Mexican name ‘marijuana‘ is frequently used in referring to cannabis leaves or other crude plant material in many countries.

Most species of cannabis are dioecious plants that can be identified as either male or female. The unpollinated female plants are called hashish. Cannabis oil (hashish oil) is a concentrate of cannabinoids — compounds which are structurally similar to THC — obtained by solvent extraction of the crude plant material or of the resin.

The WHO says that cannabis is by far the most widely cultivated, trafficked and abused illicit drug in the world.

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How does the NDPS Act define cannabis?

According to the NDPS Act “cannabis plant” means any plant of the genus cannabis. The legislation that was enacted in 1985 succeeded the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930. It was introduced as lawmakers felt that the older legislation that entailed a maximum punishment of up to four years was not strict enough to check drug trafficking.

Under section 2 (iii), the Act defines cannabis (hemp). The sub-sections refer to parts of the plant that come under the purview of the Act.

‘Charas’ is the separated resin extracted from the cannabis plant. The NDPS Act covers separated raisin, in whatever form, whether crude or purified, obtained from the cannabis plant and also includes concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish.

According to a 2018 WHO report by the Secretariat of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), “The resin can resemble a resinous secretion of the plant, which is produced in the glandular trichomes, but also occurs as finer plant material, which appears as loose or pressed sticky powder, depending on the method of production.” Charas is also commonly called ‘hash’.

Section 2(iii)(b) of the NDPS Act defines ‘ganja’ as the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant but it clearly excludes the seeds and leaves, when not accompanied by the tops, by whatever name they may be known or designated. Street names for the drug include ‘weed’ and ‘marijuana’.

The Act also illegalises any mixture with or without any neutral material, of any of the two forms of cannabis – charas and ganja — or any drink prepared from it.

Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty leaves in her car after she was granted bail by Bombay High Court in a drug case linked to late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, in Mumbai, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (PTI Photo: Mitesh Bhuvad)

Are substances made from cannabis leaves also illegal under the NDPS Act?

No. As defined in the Act, the legislature left seeds and leaves of the cannabis plant out of the ambit of the NDPS Act.

The serrated leaves of the plant have negligible THC content. THC is the psychoactive or intoxicating compound present in the cannabis plant that is mainly responsible for giving consumers the ‘high’. ‘Bhang’, which is commonly consumed during festivals like Holi, is a paste made out of the leaves of the cannabis plant, and is hence not outlawed.

Similarly, CBD oil — an acronym for cannabidiol derived from the cannabis plant — that surfaced in the NCB’s investigation of WhatsApp chats between Sushant Singh Rajput’s talent manager Jaya Saha and Rhea Chakraborty, Saha’s lawyer said, would not come under the NDPS Act.

“Our research shows that CBD oil is made from the leaves of the cannabis plant and hence does not attract the NDPS Act,” said criminal lawyer Ayaz Khan, who represents Saha. The information on the bottle of the ‘CiBiDiUM’ brand of the oil that Saha suggested Rhea could give Rajput, stated that it contained no THC.

Khan also pointed out that the bottle does not bear the ‘NRx’ sign that prescription drugs that contain substances that may come under the NDPS Act, are required to have according to section 97(c ) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act that refers to labelling of medicines.

Cannabis samples inside a laboratory facility in Lesotho. (Bloomberg Photo: Waldo Swiegers)

Then why is the use of CBD oil still contentious in India?

The NDPS Act does not permit the recreational use of cannabis in India. While CBD oil manufactured with a licence under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 can be legally used, it is not very common. Some Indian websites do sell CBD oil with a prescription and many even facilitate it.

Former head of the psychiatry department at AIIMS, Dr Sudhir Khandewal said, “Some states in the US have legalised CBD oil but we do not prescribe it here. Cannabis content is very low and it has very low THC and has no addictive properties. More than anxiety and depression, it has been found useful in cancer treatment like in multiple myeloma. For associated symptoms of cancer it has been found useful. There have been several discussions on this. Cannabis is mired in so much controversy. It should not have been in the NDPS Act, but unfortunately, it is.”

“We are still struggling with drugs to treat cancer and mental illnesses and so claims are made by everybody and people also want to try it. CBD also has a non-specific recommendation. People think it will at least have a ‘feel good’ factor or cheer up the person,” he said.

Medical practitioners said many people suffering from anxiety and depression are known to buy it legally in the US and bring it back to India for personal use in small quantities.