In November 2018, MASA members grabbed the chance to visit Mumbai and New Delhi, India to attend the “Cannabis R&D in India” forum organized by Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO) and the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR). It was a beautiful experience travelling to one of the oldest lands in the world which is said to be the origin of cannabis plants. Hindu Indians use cannabis as a herb for as long as they can remember. The plant is also mentioned in the sacred scripture Atharva Veda to be one of five sacred plants that are essential for life.
With such rich culture and history, India only made cannabis illegal due to international pressure. However, despite stringent laws across the country, there are still some states like Kathmandu where cannabis plants are still growing wild. Due to the tradition of using cannabis in their daily lives, the government of India allowed these villagers to continue harvesting cannabis. Indian Hemp produce the best quality fibers as its genetics has been perfected after being continuously grown for thousands of years. BOHECO started as a hemp textile company that collected fibers from local farmers all over India. They helped create a new source of livelihood for the villagers in rural areas who loves planting and producing hemp fibers. The acceptance of hemp products in India was still quite low due to lack of education and advertisement on such products. In a large country with a population of 1.38 billion people, the government needs to understand what cannabis plants will do to the mental and physical state of the society. Past records of frequent and daily users show no detrimental side effects or any cause for worry. Yet, the majority of clinical trials produced in countries like the United States prior to 1970’s argued that cannabis is dangerous and should remain illegal. In order to resolve this conflict, as like other countries, India decided to form a new neutral committee of researchers to conduct local clinical trials.
Cannabis has gained national interest in India and many politicians, law enforcers, scientists, doctors, patients and enthusiasts are flooding the internet to learn more about the incredible plant, yet there was no local source of information that people could trust. This is why BOHECO decided to host the forum “Cannabis R&D in India” with CSIR and gather prominent representatives in India that can make the right changes for the country. This is in-line with their tagline “Educate, Cultivate, Elevate”. The forum was attended by medical experts, policy makers and researchers including Dr Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for Prime Minister’s office; Dr Ram Vishwakarma, Director-CSIR-IIIM; Dr Rajendra Badwe, Director, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai; Dr Dharmvira Gandhi, Member of Parliament,Dr Manjari Tripathi, Head Neurology), AIIMS; Dr Anurag Srivastava, Head (Surgery), AIIMS and Jahan Peston James, Co-founder, BOHECO. After the opening ceremony, Avnish Pandya, Director of R&D, BOHECO said, “Any medicine requires a standard, stable and predictable cannabis plants with standard cannabinoid output derived from their flowering tops to get consistent medicine. There is also a lack of clinical trials on cannabis and its isolated compounds. Clinical trials are based on single molecule compounds due to their predictability, in contrast to Ayurvedic medicines which represent a multi-faceted approach towards medicine. So, either cannabis has to walk down the path of clinical trials, or clinical trials have to accommodate multi-compound, complex formulations. The lack of regulatory clarity on cannabinoids other than THC, combined with socio-cultural stigma of cannabis consumption since 1985, has contributed towards the absence of cannabis-based medicines in the Indian market.”
This is indefinitely true for cannabis and many other natural plant medicine. Regulations for clinical trials based on the pharmaceutical approach today does not allow for the cannabis plant to be tested as a whole. The only way the plant can be studied and used to its full potential is by removing it from Schedule One of the Dangerous Drug Act which limits its access and application. Dr Dhiraj Vyas, Head of Dept-Plant Biotechnology, CSIR-IIIM said, ‘There are no standard varieties or seeds of cannabis to cultivate in India. As cannabis is considered a narcotic commodity under the NDPS Act, research is restricted due to the non-availability of research-grade material. Research projects to produce standard varieties of cannabis have only recently begun in India by CSIR-IIIM in collaboration with the Bombay Hemp Company, and there are no standard extracts from which medicines can be produced. Since there are no standard medicines available, patients are reluctant to try cannabis in the form of oils, etc. and doctors lack awareness about endocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system that is present within every mammal. As a result, only a few doctors in India are currently in a position to prescribe cannabis-based medicine to anyone.” Cannabis is a fast breeding plant that reportedly has over 250 different strains across India, while it is estimated that there are more than 80,000 different varieties of cannabis strains produced from cross-breeding cannabis plants. Strain refers to variations found within plant cultivars. It also refers to the offspring that descend from modified plants. These plants are either produced by biotechnological methods or through regular breeding. In some cases, different strains result from genetic mutations. Each cannabis strain contains different combination of active compounds that help treat different illnesses.
Professor Dedi Meiri, Head of Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabinoid Research, Technion, Israel has 500 strains of cannabis at his research centre. Among those strains, his team identified a strain that can kill colon cancer cells and another strain which kills prostate cancer cells. He explains this in detail on TED X, Tel Aviv where he also gave a picture of how cannabis plants could lead to even more exciting discoveries in the next five years. After the successful forum discussions, the government of India quickly to steps into legalizing the production, sales and purchase of cannabis products. Two years later, the first medical cannabis clinic in India was opened in Koramangala, Bangalore on 1 February 2020. The clinic sells cannabis infused tablets and oils under the brand name Vedi Herbals. Similar to Thailand, they took the right decision of classifying cannabis as “traditional medicine” which allows the plant to be consumed naturally as full spectrum to all members of society. Preventive measures like limiting the type of strains used and the levels of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the products are taken to ensure that nobody gets accidentally intoxicated by products sold in stores. Cannabis strains with high levels of THC is still strictly regulated at the moment and the government is taking careful deliberation by working together with experts to research the clinical effects of short and long-term cannabis use. Its amazing how cannabis is making its return to the homeland after being banished over international influence. History teaches us to not repeat mistakes, and one important lesson from the prohibition of cannabis is that we as an individual or nation should always produce independent research and trials that can be reviewed and compared before making any changes to the laws of the country which will change the lives of a billion people.
Today, BOHECO is producing hemp seed products which is rich in proteins like Omega-3 and 6 that helps maintain bodily functions and will soon release CBD and THC extracts which will be sold over-the-counter (OTC). Within two years, Thailand and India are already providing legal cannabis products and evidence of its safety and effectiveness which should significantly accelerate the progress in Malaysia. Yet the stigma and restrictions are still thwarting any form of cannabis research even though it proves to have the ability to save lives and can open up a new market sector for green-technology products using hemp. Research shows that our laws and perception on cannabis is wrong due to the selfish act of individuals in the past, so should we continue to live with this dogma?