Uncovering The Truth Behind Hemp Products In India

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With hemp (Cannabis Sativa) cultivation being legalised in several Indian states, and food safety authorities developing regulations for hemp products, the Indian market for hemp-based food and beverages is poised to take off, claims data and analytics company GlobalData.

Cannabis/marijuana has gained a positive image among Indian Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen X consumers, according to GlobalData’s Q2 2021 consumer survey*. Consequently, this is driving the demand for new hemp-based food and beverages with vegan, vegetarian, organic, and immunity booster claims.

One question commonly posed to entrepreneurs selling hemp-based products is: Will this get me high? The query could be for any hemp products—hemp oil, seed, powder, even a T-shirt made of hemp. The answer invariably is no, which may come as a bit of a disappointment to some. But the question is an indication of the confusion that still surrounds hemp, a plant that is currently fuelling startups and e-commerce in India at an unprecedented rate.

Hemp products were one of the few categories that benefited during the pandemic. Entrepreneurs say the lockdown gave consumers the space to focus on health. They looked for better experiences with food, nutrition, alternative curative methods and therapeutic products that would help with anxiety and pain relief. They sought more sustainable brands, shifting to vegetarianism and veganism. Once e-sellers overcame issues with supplies and deliveries in the early days, business started picking up.

Both hemp and marijuana come from the Cannabis sativa family of plants. Both have tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the psychoactive component which provides the sense of euphoria or intoxication) and CBD (cannabidiol) with many other compounds. CBD is an oil extracted from the leaves, stem and flowers that acts as a painkiller, muscle relaxant and mood enhancer. Regulated industrial hemp plants in India contain primarily CBD and its extracts usually contain less than 0.3% THC, which does not give you a “high”. Supply is controlled by the government, with only a handful of companies having an Ayush licence to manufacture  hemp products that’s supplied to retailers.

But what’s the confusion?

India’s complicated and enduring connection with cannabis extends through history, mythology and religion. It’s mentioned as one of five sacred plants in the Vedas and is a staple during the festivals of Holi and Mahashivratri in north India.

Yet, though the plant originated in the Himalaya and Central Asia, the modern-day cannabis market is only about 30-35 years young. For once cannabis was classified as a synthetic drug in the US, which made it illegal in 1970 and later banned it, it came under the spotlight in India too. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 bans the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (ganja) but excludes seeds, stalks and leaves. Bhaang is a paste made from the leaves, so it’s not outlawed. The confusion is that bhaang was never illegal. It has a religious association and Ayurveda has 190 formulations that have cannabis as a key ingredient. CBD oil does not come under the NDPS Act either and hence, one can buy hemp products India very safely.

Through all the ups and downs, however, the unorganised recreational cannabis industry never really faded away. After the NDPS Act, it just slipped under the radar. Shah believes India has about 38 million active recreational users.

Things began looking up again when the US, in a 2018 Farm Bill, decided to allow hemp cultivation, sale, possession and transfer of hemp-derived products. “Now, like yoga and golden turmeric, the moment the US brings it back, India jumps on the bandwagon,” says Bhattacharya.

Uttarakhand became the first state to permit commercial cultivation of industrial hemp, in July 2018. The Indian Industrial Hemp Association became the first to cultivate hemp legally there. Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan are expected to follow suit but at present Uttarakhand remains the sole local supplier.

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