Last year, the plant generated nearly $8 billion in the US. But India isn't open to the idea yet. What if you were told that there was an ingredient that could cure cancer, treat people in remission, keep anxiety at bay and help mitigate epilepsy? A mystical elixir of life, or nature’s vital vit
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.
We Spoke To 4 Indians Who Are Using Cannabis Oil As Medicine
What if you were told that there was an ingredient that could cure cancer, treat people in remission, keep anxiety at bay and help mitigate epilepsy? A mystical elixir of life, or nature’s vital vitamin perhaps. Still, the world is far from in agreement when it comes to the ‘powers’ of cannabis oil. Like most things these days, opinions are deeply polarised but with more and more Indians turning to it for its medicinal properties, it’s a disservice to ignore it altogether. Homegrown writer, Tansha Vohra, tracked down four people who have been using the herb extract for various reasons to better understand its nature, the possibilities of its medicinal use, and the blurry legalities that surround it.
Three names have been changed in the interest of protecting our source’s identities.
Between History And Geography
For generations now, we have had wisdom to heal the body, however, it is bewildering that we have restrained ourselves in the field of discovery in what the marijuana plant can do as far as medicine is concerned. The same plant that has played such a vibrant role in India’s own history, both culturally and agriculturally. If the Vedas are to be believed, we signed on for the boons of cannabis early on. As per its labelling, it was one of “five sacred plants and a guardian angel lived in its leaves. It was considered “a source of happiness, a joy-giver, liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose fear.” India is a country where marijuana farming has traditionally been the source of livelihood for many farmers. Nearly 400 of India’s 640 districts have had cannabis cultivation, according to Romesh Bhattacharji, a former Narcotics Commissioner of India. With the passing of the Narcotics and Psychotropics Act of 1985 under pressure from the US, India’s first legislation on Narcotics deemed Marijuana illegal, a very important factor to consider in the context of this story.
Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda
In the last couple of years, a small group of Indians have embraced the plant again in manners that might be deemed both more contemporary and more rooted in older beliefs. As far as the former is concerned, several companies have found industrial uses for hemp in ways you wouldn’t expect. As for the latter, cannabis oil as a medicine of sorts, is a phenomenon gaining strong footing in the west and well on its way to making a mark over here too.
To start with, it is crucial to understand exactly what cannabis oil really is. To define it with scientific accuracy, “Cannabis oil is merely the concentrated, distilled form of the plant most commonly known as marijuana, with all the plant material stripped away via a solvent. Like marijuana, cannabis oil contains two primary ingredients: the high-inducing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and cannabidiol (CBD), the second most active ingredient in marijuana” according to this report. The CBD works within the physiological realm of the body, and is the compound mainly associated with using this plant for medicinal purposes.
A Drop A Day Keeps The Doctor Away
“Do I actually need the medicine on a daily basis? No. Do I take it everyday? Yes” says one of our sources from Mumbai, Dheeraj*, a 30-year-old musician who is more honest about his relationship with cannabis oil than most. “Guess I’m a recreational medicine user. Do I need to take a multivitamin everyday? Probably not, but I take that too. So is that medicinal or recreational? I don’t know. It’s very much a part of my daily dietary intake. I don’t think of it as anything more than tulsi or neem or a herb that comes from the Earth,” he continues.
His thoughts are interesting because each person we spoke to seemed to use and dose themselves with the ‘medicine’ in a different way, for a different reason altogether. A highly individualistic game of trial and error, which makes sense considering there are no rules for something that has neither been specifically studied, nor legally allowed. Our research spanned across people who used the oil to control their epileptic seizures, some to induce hunger in cancer patients, some for better and fuller sleep, and others as a means of focus. It’s only natural then that their need and volume of intake have differed vastly.
For Dheeraj, the effects of the oil on his rescued dog have been remarkable too. He applied a mixture of cannabis oil and coconut oil topically onto her coat (which was heavily shedding and itchy) and tells us “it worked wonders – she was soothed, she was healed, she wasn’t in pain, she wasn’t itching, the hair grew back.”
But how are people being introduced to this extract at all?
Jerry*, a 31-year-old textile designer from Bangalore who suffers from Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy tells us about his journey with oil and his medical condition. “Rick Simpson, who is a global ambassador for legalization / decriminalization had come down, and I met him after the conference and he saw the kind of oil we were making. Of course, there was a certain difference in technique and getting the consistency right, but after I started to take the oil I saw that it does help me settle down. I don’t have a premonition when I’m going to have an attack, but I have a few physical indicators. My indicators are that there is an involuntary twitch in my arm or my lip, getting lost in my head for a moment. I take a little oil in small doses and what I notice is that for the next 3 weeks to a month I won’t have any of these indicators or triggers showing anywhere. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t do all the drugs I would have loved to do and unfortunately I do still get my attacks. I have to accept that this is a dangerous condition but it’s a reality.” He also told us that when he was taking the medicine prescribed for his condition by doctors, he would often have double vision, loss of balance, blanks in his memory and other such side effects that were completely absent when he took the oil instead.
We also spoke to Varsha*, a 26-year-old Musician from Mumbai, who tells us that she suffered from a chronic cough and throat infection that lasted almost 6 months. It was getting in the way of her recordings, performances, shows and her voice at large. She admits that “within a week of use (I started with a vaporiser and graduated to ingesting the oil) my cough had disappeared, entirely. And hasn’t returned since. In fact, the last time I went to a doctor for anything was 2.5 years ago and before that I was at the doc’s every week for some malady or the other.”
Make Your Oil And Eat It Too?
A large number of people have heard of this form of treatment through the word of mouth, surprising for a country such as ours that is widely accepting of alternative medical treatments and medicinal value derived from nature. One of our sources, Nischay*, a filmmaker and Vegetalismo (a tradition of Peruvian healing) who has done intensive research on the subject tells us that “Personally, I offer people seeds to grow their own medicine because right now there really isn’t enough medicine to go around. Cancer rate is increasing literally by the hour per day in India so accessing it – a lot of people are actually purchasing it from avenues across the country. This obviously creates an issue when we come down to what we call normal human conditioning – basically our idea/ conditioning of consumerism and not really working for our own self. Plants are grown for free, nature gives it to us for free, so when it comes down to medicine if people just grew it, everyone’s going to be better off. I have a few people that have started to cook their own medicine, they’re just getting into it because if you actually cook it, it wouldn’t cost you more than INR 4000 including everything that’s needed – it wouldn’t cost as much to make one syringe which is about 10ml.” Buying the treatment can cost you anywhere from Rs. 7,000 to 1.2 lakhs, we’ve been told. Usually the medicine can cost about Rs. 15,000 on average for a vial that can last anywhere between 1-4 months depending on how frequently you dose yourself, which is incredibly high even after accounting for all that people go through to produce it.
Varsha notes that “the wonderful thing about cannabis oil is that if you manage to get good leaf you can make the medicine for yourself, all links are readily available on YouTube. I say medicine because that’s exactly what it’s been to me and now millions of people across the world who have used it for diseases ranging from cancer, to bronchial diseases, depression, epileptic and other seizures, autism, ADD, autoimmune diseases and STDs to name a few. It is, however, difficult to get the leaf itself because it comes under contraband in India but if you have a little garden or a balcony or a space where you can put planters, grow your own plants, make your own medicine.”
The Dark Side Of The Moon
Like with anything in this world, we’ve come to know that there is a flip side, and so it is with cannabis oil as treatment. There are more than a few reasons that pose as a cause for concern when we using it as medication. Number one on this list being the solvent used to extract the oil. Most often, people use pure Isotropyl Alcohol to extract the oil, and 100% pure oil means that the alcohol has been evaporated completely. One way to physically gauge this is by the viscosity of the oil itself – if it’s runny, it’s probably still got solvent in there. When an oil is 98% or 99% pure, we must remember that there is still 1-2% of polymer element that is poisonous, and by consuming it over long periods of time, there can be damage to the liver. If it is not fully evaporated, the medicine can most certainly be detrimental.
The best way to reduce your chances of facing an issue is to put your oil on a coffee burner for 24- 48 hours and let all the solvent evaporate. It has been recommended that this be standard procedure in any case wherein you are not aware of how the oil has been prepared. Another way to avoid as much damage is to use the oil in the manner of an anal suppository rather than ingest it orally, Nischay told us. This is because the oil is then deviated from the digestive track as far as possible, leaving the liver out of the equation. This method also has the fastest absorption rate of oil, and its effects can be seen in 10-15 minutes.
Another factor has to do with dosage – how much is the right amount? At this moment, most people in India are self medicating and may not have a clinical approach to the dosage. This largely has to do with the fact that we are not aware of THC vs. CBD content of the oil, and sometimes to get the right amount of CBD you may have ingested too much THC – which would just get you really, really high. If this isn’t something you are familiar with, there could be a lot of issues such as paranoia, anxiety, and fear. The only way around this is to start slowly, upping your dose everyday as your body gets used to it. Dheeraj says, “It’s not designed to slap you in the face – if you have 10 cups of coffee the first time you ever drink coffee, you’d be wired. You can’t do that to yourself – your body would go into shock, and not because it’s bad for you but because it’s just not used to it. It’s the same thing – people who are non vegetarian turn vegetarian and instantly they feel their energy levels rise or drop, but there is a shift and your body is responding in one way or the other.”
Nischay tells us, “As a rule of thumb, you are using half an rice grain drop and you’re basically taking that one drop for four days, and every four days after that you’re going to keep doubling an extra drop every day. So you have to work towards a 1 ml plus for the real medicine to work, because you’re consuming the plant for the CBD mostly and very little for the THC.”
Cannabis oil has been touted as one of the means for therapy for children with epilepsy in the west – however, the oil that has been approved in cases for children has been pure CBD oils. These oils have no THC in them which eliminates the potential ethical dilemma of getting children high. Unfortunately, because the oil production is at a very nascent stage in idea, we are bereft of these choices. Hence, the full utility of the oil as therapy simply cannot be explored until we start presenting ourselves with combinations and options – all of which requires research. But how does one allow for research into a subject that stands to be criminally prosecuted?
So, Is Legalisation The Answer?
This seems to be the question of the hour, really. While legalization seems like the grand promise to a better future, it really isn’t. Legalizing marijuana growth would allow for large pharmaceutical companies and conglomerates to capitalize on farming, leading to the loss of livelihood for many farmers who have been farming for generations. It would also make marijuana more of a capitalistic product rather than a medicine given to us by nature, almost rebuking the whole purpose in itself.
Decriminalization, on the other hand, seems to be a better way forward. In this way, people who are in possession of certain amounts of medicine and marijuana would not be criminally prosecuted, granting access to more people who need the medicine but are wary of the legal consequences. In addition, it opens the gates that currently block research on the subject in India. With more research, we could start eliminating the problems listed with the use of the medicine, and potentially allow for pure CBD oils to enter the market – encompassing a much larger base of illness and diseases that could allegedly be managed, if not cured. As it stands, there is a very specific and numbered percentage of the population who has access to the right information regarding cannabis oil, let alone those willing to give it a try. This has everything to do with privilege, not necessarily of the socio-economic kind though given the price we discussed earlier it’s definitely something to consider, but most certainly of the educational kind. Further smaller, is the group advocating for its legal status. These people are grouped not necessarily as from the same socio-economic background, as much as they are by access to the right information and literature on cannabis. Much of this literature and knowledge is accompanied with the belief that pharmaceutical companies are largely responsible for a lack of research and information on nature’s curative powers, given the pretty penny they stand to make.
In his interview, Nischay concludes with the thought that “Cannabis would be a footstep for evolution, because then we would start working with the planet or start being a part of an ecosystem, and finally stop being against it.” A recent legislation passed by the Uttarakhand government that allows for the legal cultivation of the hemp plant is most definitely a step in the right direction. However, it remains that there is a long, long way before we get to the point of even considering this to be reality.
Homegrown does not recommend or advice the use of cannabis oil for treatment without thorough research and understanding. Please speak to someone about your medical condition in particular, as each case presents itself differently.
This is a topic we would like to explore further, so if you or anyone you know has anything to supplement this story (insights, thoughts, stories) please write to us at [email protected]