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Last year, the plant generated nearly $8 billion in the US. But India isn't open to the idea yet. While many today are decrying marijuana as 'drugs', it wasn't that long ago when yoga guru and millionaire Baba Ramdev's Patanjali called for legalisation of weed.

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.

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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.

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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.

Remember the Time When Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Batted for Legalisation of Cannabis?

While many today are decrying marijuana as ‘drugs’, it wasn’t that long ago when yoga guru and millionaire Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali called for legalisation of weed.

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Remember the time when Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali called for legalisation of weed?

The Narcotics Control Bureau has of late been in the news for its investigation into the alleged use of drugs by Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty in connection to the death of actor and her reported boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput. The actress was arrested under several sections of the Narcotic Drugs and Pyschotropic Substances Act for allegedly procuring and financing marijuana for Rajput.

The case reopened a raging debate about the legalization of marijuana in India. While so-called fans of Rajput and seekers of “justice for Sushant” were happy with NCB’s arrest, many wondered if it was fair to arrest someone based on laws that were formed due to western influence. In fact, calls for legalisation of marijuana and its byproducts have been around for years.

And while many BJP and far-right supporters today are decrying “marijuana” as drugs, it wasn’t that long ago when yoga guru-cum-millionaire Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali called for legalisation of weed.

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In 2018, Patanjali CEO Acharya Balakrishna (who reportedly owns nearly 98 percentof the stake sin Patanjali) took told the media that Patanjali was looking into possible medicinal uses of the cannabis plant.

In an interview, Balakrishna “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”.

He was not wrong about the ancient use of cannabis and its byproducts in India.

In India, marijuana has been in use for millennia in various forms including ganja, bhang, hashish and other variants. Its oldest known usage and mention goes as far back as 2000 BCE and it has mentioned in several ancient texts as well as the Vedas.

It was only after 1985 when India passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act that marijuana or cannabis in the form of buds or resin (charas) was banned while allowing the sale of bhang – a byproduct of cannabis that is still heavily consumed on festivals like Holi and Shivratri.

Balakrishna also spoke on the topic of legalisation of weed in several TedX talks. In one such talk in January 2018 held in Panchkula, the yoga guru had said, “By criminalising marijuana, we are denying a full-fledged business opportunity to our people”.

He did, however, clarify that his advocacy was for medicinal marijuana only, not recreational pot smoking.

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