What is Hemp?
Hemp is a plant, every part of which can be used: the stalk, seeds, and flowers. It is an environmentally-friendly, sustainable and climate-adaptive crop. Hemp can be grown without pesticides, and requires a lot less water than other crops, like cotton. It is also more productive per area of land than other crops. In fact, hemp can be considered a weed, and grows really fast!
It is also extremely diverse. Hemp can be refined and used in the manufacturing of a variety of commercial items such as pharmaceuticals, paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, beverages, furniture, construction, personal care, and animal feed. Talk about a wonder plant!
Despite its incredible versatility, hemp often gets a bad rap because of its association with marijuana. But guess what? They are NOT the same thing! Actually, marijuana comes from the plant cannabis indica, which can have tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrations as high as 5-10%. This is the cannabis we historically associate with psychoactive products. They are known by many names in India, like bhang, charas, ganja and hashish.
Hemp comes from the plant cannabis sativa, which is different from its cousin, cannabis indica. Cannabis indica is grown for its psychoactive properties, whereas hemp has many practical uses and does not produce any psychoactive effects.
Hemp, on the other hand, comes from cannabis sativa, a totally different – but related – plant. Does hemp have THC? Well, it does, but way, way less. Hemp has lower concentrations of THC and higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD), which decreases or eliminates the psychoactive effects of hemp products. The THC levels in industrial hemp are typically between 0.2% and 0.3%. It’s this low THC content that gives hemp such practical application over its more psychoactive cousin.
Origins of Hemp in India
Cannabis in India has a long history. Most historians agree that the cannabis plant is native to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, in the Himalayan mountains from Kashmir through to Nepal, and even Bhutan and Myanmar. Even today, it is believed that 60% of all districts in India have wild cannabis.
Its use by humans can be traced back as far as 8000 BCE, where archaeological evidence of hemp has been found in China, Taiwan and Japan. In fact, it’s known that hemp was traditionally used in China to make clothes, shoes, ropes and an early form of paper.
Hemp and India go back thousands of years, too. In fact, the Vedas, estimated to be at least 3400 years old, refer to it as one of the five most sacred plants. Traditionally, hemp in India was used for preparing natural medicines, nutritional foods and also fibre to make textiles. Traditional hemp use in India is associated with Ayurveda, a holistic medical system that focuses on promoting good health and preventing illness through healthy lifestyle practices and herbal remedies. Ayurveda originated nearly 3000 years ago and it elaborately characterises different parts of the hemp plant for a variety of curative purposes.
Indian Hemp & the Law
Hemp has been used for centuries in India, but ever tighter regulations around narcotics starting in the 19th Century have unduly limited the ability to cultivate hemp in India.
Is hemp legal in India? Good question! The legal landscape around hemp in India has been evolving over centuries. The question, does hemp have THC, has been at the forefront of this battle. Despite its unending variety of industrial uses, hemp constantly comes up against the stigma of its psychoactive cousin, and whether the cultivation of hemp in India can ultimately lead to the production and distribution of drugs.
The regulation of hemp in India began in the colonial era, when cannabis was being restricted across all British colonies starting at the beginning of the 19th Century. In 1894, the British India government completed a wide-ranging study of cannabis in India. From then on, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (1894-1895) began to regulate the use and processing of cannabis in India. During the British India period, the various Indian states made different laws suppressing and criminalizing the cultivation of hemp in India, and the processing and use of cannabis products, especially narcotic products.
Hemp and India in the 20th Century and beyond
The criminalization of cannabis on the international stage began in the early 20th Century. In 1925, the International Opium Convention in The Hague banned the exportation of “Indian hemp” to the countries that had prohibited its use. Following two UN conventions – the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971) – the Government of India passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (the NDPS Act) which regulates the cultivation, production, sale, transport, possession and use of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and other manufactured drugs. It is under this legal framework that the hemp plant has been grossly suppressed and demonized.A movement to liberate hemp from criminalization and to promote its industrial usefulness has been underway since 2015, as countries around the world begin to decriminalize hemp and marijuana. Luckily, the NDPS Act allows individual states to regulate hemp cultivation in India, as long as they have the infrastructure in place to ensure a THC content below 0.3%. The Uttarakhand state was the first to make hemp legal in India, permitting the legal cultivation of the plant.
Is Hemp Legal in India Now? The Legalities of hemp cultivation in India today
Uttar Pradesh has now joined Uttarakhand in legalizing hemp farming in India. Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur and many other states are ready to open up as well. In view of the brightening legal landscape for hemp in India, local entrepreneurs and industries are taking note.
Currently, hemp companies in India depend on imports of raw hemp from Europe, North America and China. There are no restrictions on the import of raw hemp, as long as it complies with India’s phytosanitary guidelines. There is hope now that industrial hemp cultivation in India will also take off, so that India can supply its own manufacturers as well as contribute to the global market for hemp.