Going to pot

Why one government ministry wants to legalise cannabis

Industrial cultivation of the plant to manufacture fibre could earn India Rs 240 million a year, estimates the textile ministry.

For over half a century now, Indian hemp or cannabis has been outlawed in India because of the intoxicating substances contained in the plant's flowers and resin. These are the source of some of the world's most fabled hashish and ganja. As a consequence, anyone who cultivates the plant invites a prison term of up to 10 years.

But if the efforts of one firm succeed, India may soon turn over a new leaf and allow farmers to grow hemp. The country isn’t doing this to encourage the consumption of narcotics, of course. Instead, it aims to encourage the use of hemp to produce paper, rope, clothing – and even be eaten as a crunchy snack.

“For the last 50 years, the government has looked at cannabis cultivation only from the narcotic angle due to the rising pressure on global war on drugs,” said Avnish Pandya, the head of research and development of hemp at Bombay Hemp Company, which has been lobbying for industrial cultivation of hemp in India. But, says Pandya, “there is another side to cannabis which is harmless and of high economic value, lying untapped. Why not legalise that?”

Internationally, hemp production is estimated to be around 0.1 million tonnes annually. Allowing Indian farmers to cultivate hemp will give them a stake in the $1.5 trillion hemp industry currently dominated by China, France and Germany. Legalising the plant could create an industrial hemp textile market in India that could be valued at an estimated Rs 240 million, according to the central government’s Ministry of Textiles.

The textile ministry's 2010 Natural Fibre Policy identified hemp fibre for attention, along with banana fibre, pineapple fibre, flax, sisal, and nettle.  The document recommended special policies to encourage the development of these natural fibres. Uttarakhand, which has a tradition of growing hemp , has been declared a nodal state for nettle and hemp promotion by the ministry.

While there is a growing advocacy around the world to decriminalise cannabis for recreational and medicinal use, BOHECO, as the people at the Bombay Hemp Company call their firm, says its efforts are focused solely on cannabis sativa. This strain of hemp used for industrial purposes cannot be misused as a narcotic because it contains only a small proportion of the substance that causes intoxication.

But for hemp cultivation to start, there is a welter of regulations to be reconciled. Though India banned the consumption, production and cultivation of cannabis plant under pressure from the US in 1961, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, does actually permit the cultivation of hemp for horticulture and industrial purposes. However, no licences have been are issued to farmers since the act was passed. Adding to the confusion, each of the states in India prohibits cannabis cultivation under their Excise Acts.

While India is the world’s largest producer of legal opium for medical and scientific purposes, it has had no legal hemp cultivation.  Despite this, significant numbers of villagers in Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Kerala Travancore grow hemp to obtain fibre from the stems and oil from the seeds. Some even roast the seeds to eat as food or use them as religious offerings. But their crops are frequently destroyed by the police, who confuse this strain of hemp with the narcotic variety.

Since 2013, BOHECO, which works out of Mumbai, has been lobbying the textile ministry to create a regulatory framework for industrial hemp cultivation and draft an industrial hemp policy.  It is also aiming to develop a germ hemp seed suitable for Indian climatic and soil conditions. The firm is working in collaboration with the GB Pant Agriculture and Technology University in Uttarakhand to synthesise seeds that have less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. They hope to have the first batches of seed ready early in 2016.

The lanky hemp plant grows to between 6 feet-16 feet in a period of four months. The plant does not require chemical fertilisers and captures large quantities of carbon, yield eight-ten tonnes for fibre and up to two tonnes of seed per acre.

“There are over 25,000 end products of hemp,” said Chirag Tekchandaney, director of sales and marketing at BOHECO. “Internationally its fame is rising as an organic and eco-friendly plant, with hemp shirts and clothing being very popular. We are already flooded with queries and orders about hemp textile.” The firm is already selling hemp seeds sourced from Australia, hempcrete (hemp fiber blended with lime to make strong and lightweight concrete used in construction) and hemp fibre sourced from the farmers of Uttarakhand through its online portal.

The firm has been generating enthusiasm for hemp fabric by giving presentations at the recently held Lakme Fashion Week in March and the INK/TED conference in February. “Hemp is a super crop and versatile,” said Yash Kotak, BOHECO’s marketing officer. “It’s a shame we banned its use due to ignorance and confusion with marijuana. We want to make hemp farming a sexy option for the younger generation while also uplifting local farmers and industry to produce cool hemp products.’’

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