Marijuana’s Real High


Hemp is a versatile plant with multiple commercial uses that could provide livelihoods for millions, says Angarika Gogoi

The legalization of Cannabis sativa cultivation has long been the subject of global debate thanks to confusion over its two very different progenies. The stigma attached to ‘pot’ has overshadowed the huge commercial opportunities that hemp cannabinoids (which are completely non-psycho active) offer in producing textiles, fuel and medicine.

Subramanian Senthilkannan Muthu, in his book Sustainable Fibres and Textiles, published last year, says that among plant fibres, hemp-based textiles are ideal for summer clothing and very popular in the luxury-garment industry. Researchers in North America have established that vegetable oils extracted from hemp seeds can be used as food, biofuel, nutritional supplements along with other industrial uses. In fact, hemp seed oil has immense scope in the food and nutrition industry as it is rich in both omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Siddhant Mistry, a molecular biologist with the Bombay Hemp Company (Boheco), says they have been exploring how the crop can be transformed into livelihood opportunities for farmers and artisans in many parts of the country. Boheco, he says, “has gained an understanding of the agronomic and environmental conditions which are crucial to the cultivation of the cannabis plant.”

Mistry says Boheco is collaborating with the government’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for the cultivation of high and low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) varieties of the plant.THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis. Low-THC varieties can be used for different purposes including textiles, medicine, food, and hempcrete, a bio-composite material used in construction and insulation.

The project to cultivate high THC varieties of cannabis seeds is mainly for developing high-grade medicine to treat patients suffering from epilepsy and chronic pain. “At the moment we are importing certain varieties to study their output and adaptability to Indian conditions and how we could stabilize them for our conditions,” he says.

However, the use of the plant in the medical industry has been controversial. Dr. Arno Hazekamp, scientific advisor to Boheco and a cannabis expert, says clinical trials related to marijuana have been hard to conduct as compared to other subjects as cannabis is considered an illegal narcotic around the world. “The lack of clinical trials does not reflect the fact it does not work, it reflects how hard it is to set up and execute such trials,” he says.

Sourab Agarwal, founded the Medicinal Cannabis Foundation of India in Bhubaneswar two years ago to conduct medical and scientific research on the use of medical marijuana. He said that there has been ample research conducted from the 1960s that proves the efficacy of cannabis to treat several conditions. Studies have shown that cannabidiol (CBD) has been successful in providing relief for chronic pain without causing major psychoactive side effect and analgesic tolerance.

Naveen Salins, the editor of the Indian Journal of Palliative Care and associate professor at Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai confirms the positive effects of medical marijuana. However, he adds that opioids are more effective in comparison to cannabis and if cannabis is used at all, it should be devoid of psychotropic effects.

Varieties of cannabis seeds are cultivated for developing medicines that can treat patients suffering from epilepsy and chronic pain.                                                   Getty Images

Hazekamp says that currently opiates and its derivatives cause the death of 91 American individuals daily due to unintentional overdose because too many people believe that opioids are safe. He added that the world market for opioids is very strictly controlled, resulting in a huge shortage of medicinal opioids available around the world. “Currently, only a very tiny proportion of Indian patients have access to opioids when they really need them.

Cannabis is easy to cultivate and can be easily and cheaply converted into medicines suitable for patients suffering from intense pain and other conditions.”

The first instance where the question of the legality of cannabis popped up in the subcontinent was when the British administered a survey to access the patterns of cultivation, sale, and usage of ganja. The Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1894-1895, was prepared with the intention to impose taxes and derive revenue by establishing a link between “hemp drug use and insanity.”

Mark Merlin and Robert Clarke, in their book, Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany trace the origin and evolution of the plant over the years and its effect on human societies.

They state in the book that throughout the nineteenth century, Khandwa and Gwalior in central India and Bengal in the east were the largest producers and exporters of ganja in the Indian subcontinent. Also, in 1985, ganja production and sales were still licensed in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal.

Despite the debate over the legality of marijuana in India, many parts of the country, especially villages in Himachal Pradesh, grow cannabis. It is almost impossible to curb the cultivation as it is native to the country and it grows wild in the Indian Himalayas. In Himachal Pradesh, the charas or hashish produced by the manually extracting the resin of the plant sustains the livelihoods of many farmers in the hills.

In Uttarakhand, Boheco in collaboration with CSIR, is trying to develop varieties of hemp seeds which are low in THC. When they discovered that local artisans were using raw hemp to produce handlooms, the company employed 150 women weavers to train in weaving using with hemp yarn.

‘The Great Legalisation Movement’ which was launched by Viki Vaurora in Bangalore is another campaign to legalise cannabis for medical use and to promote the large-scale industrial cultivation of hemp.

In a recent letter addressed to the prime minister, Vaurora extolled the many benefits of medical marijuana and outlined the multiple industrial uses of hemp. He also pointed out how the crop requires very little investment and care besides being an eco-friendly option to produce bio-cement, bio-fuel and even bio-plastic.

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