After 4,000 Years with It, India’s Angling to Embrace Cannabis

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Among the world’s cannabis markets, India represents a sleeping giant.

Of all the legacy producers globally – including Colombia, Mexico, and Morocco – India maintains the potential to become the most important among them. With the world’s second-largest population (surpassing 1.4 billion) and approximately one-fifth of all people on Earth, its domestic market is huge. As New Frontier Data has noted, India runs one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies (third after the U.S. and China), worth $2.1 trillion, and is expected by the World Economic Forum to become the third-largest consumer market by 2030.

An Intimate History with Cannabis

Cannabis has a long and deeply rooted cultural history which belies its illicit legal status in India. Considering how integral cannabis is in Indian society – its earliest use there dates beyond 2,000 BCE, for various reasons ranging from religious sacrament to recreational draw for tourists – it is perhaps surprising that the subcontinental country has not leveraged it more effectively. 

India has long established itself as a destination for cannabis tourism. Despite the federal prohibition, some states allow and regulate bhang, and tourists visiting for spiritual elements or wellbeing sometimes find it difficult to understand the illegality despite the plant’s apparent prevalence and public ease of access to it. 

For the cannabis industry, the trouble is that despite certain loopholes (as in the U.S.), India’s central government maintains national prohibition despite differing laws within respective Indian states. For example, Uttar Pradesh allows cultivation and sale of cannabis (for traditional bhang with use in Hinduism), while in Punjab it can only be sold in designated zones and Rajasthan issues licences for the sale of cannabis products. India’s hemp industry is taking off, New Frontier Data noted before the COVID-19 pandemic, with two Indian states (Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh) actively permitting commercial cultivation, though cultivating hemp for CBD remains illegal. Until India’s vast untapped potential for an ambitious hemp industry becomes less restrictive, or that CBD becomes legal, India remains a market brimming with potential, but only barely realized profits.

The country’s generally draconian stance to cannabis is not helpful. The tone was set in 1985 by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act (then urged by the U.S.) when high-THC cannabis was formalised as illegal.

Progress Being Made

Still, cannabis connoisseurs come from around the globe to the Malana Valley in Himachal Pradesh to try Indian hashish strains like Malana Cream, which is both much sought and highly expensive. As an edible preparation, bhang is often combined with food and drinks including milk, sugar, poppy seed, pepper, ginger, clove, cardamom, or pistachios. While the NDPS Act prohibits cannabis resin and flower – i.e., charms or ganja, respectively – it allows for the use of seeds, stems, and leaves, leaving bhang with an anomalous status connected to Hindu ceremonies such as Holi, and its common use in traditional drinks lassi and thandai.

Recently, there have been some cautious moves forward: In December 2020, the officials voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The country’s first Indian Hemp Expo recently came to Delhi, billed as a “revolutionary event with an aim to propel the growth of the hemp/cannabis industry”.

Products Being Developed

One company making gains is Dr. Reddy – India’s fourth-largest pharmaceutical  company – which has moved to acquire German cannabis company Nimbus Health in a move expected to inspire other companies in India to move into medical cannabis.  Europe is expected to be a key beneficiary from India’s activity, as U.S. regulatory pressure on pharmaceutical products makes Europe an easier export target. The U.K., for example, is already India’s second-largest foreign customer for drugs and pharmaceuticals.

In 2019, the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences reported that about 7.2% of Indians used cannabis in the previous year. While that percentage ranks low compared to some countries, given India’s population it nevertheless translates to more than 101 million consumers, and Equio, New Frontier Data’s cannabis business intelligence platform, estimates an illicit market sizing of $21.6B in 2020. Also notable in India is that the retail price for cannabis (e.g., about $0.10 per gram) ranks among the lowest in the world.

There have been calls for legislative reform in the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi government. A recent petition proposed that medical and scientific use of cannabis be allowed on various grounds including medicinal and industrial purposes.

In a Ted Talk, Srijan Sharma of ItsHemp spoke of the sustainable potential of hemp and cannabis, and of working closely with licensed cannabis manufacturers in Uttarakhand – which in 2018 became the first state to issue a licence for the industrial cultivation of cannabis to the nonprofit Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA). Against the social groundswell remains the status of illegality. In 2019, some 72,000 people were arrested in violation of the NDPS Act (most of them for cannabis possession or consumption), which carries stiff penalties – Section 27 proposes imprisonment of up to a year, and/or a fine of up to 20,000 Indian rupees ($253 USD) for consumption of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, including for first-time offenders.

As the cannabis space develops, there is a plethora of new brands arising. From the province of Goa, a favourite destination for Western travellers has opened serving hemp-infused food, including staples such as sandwiches and coffee. Bangalore-based India Hemp Organics is a medical cannabis and nutraceutical brand with the stated goal to promote ‘harmony between… minds and bodies’, tying in the ancient medical system of Ayurveda and modern science, conjuring India as a place with the world’s oldest medical cannabis regime, as Ayurveda records over 200 classical cannabis-based formulations. With a nod to India’s legal recognition of phytopharmaceuticals, Savilkalpa is specifically looking into that heritage to bring early cannabis culture to a new market. The Bombay Hemp Company (one of the first recipients of a hemp cultivation license) has a wide range of products, as do B.E. Hemp and Hemp Cann. Indeed, should U.S.-based Moffat (in Colorado) change its name to Kush as has been suggested, as it has been suggested, it will be in tacit acknowledgement of India’s deep cannabis heritage.

So, the country has yet to catch up with the contemporary global cannabis industry. But should India (and neighbouring China) resolve to do so, they could almost overnight realign the world’s cannabis culture from West to East. For now, it remains a waiting game.