As many as 144 cannabinoids have been identified in cannabis, but only two of them have been researched in depth. These are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Both have been shown to have health benefits, but THC is the more tightly controlled one because it is highly psychoactive.
So, it is mostly CBD that is going into many new medicinal and nutritional products being made in the West, while recreational products like cannabis-infused chocolate bars are high in THC.
India’s ancient ayurvedic tradition has tapped the cannabinoids of cannabis for millennia. But it takes a full-spectrum, holistic approach instead of isolating CBD as in the new-fangled western products. This became challenging after India went along with a US-led global campaign against cannabis, which got clubbed with highly addictive and harmful substances like heroin and cocaine. Now, as the world rethinks its stance on cannabis, Indian startups are trying to revive cannabis-based ayurvedic formulations.
One of these is Bengaluru-based India Hemp Organics (IHO), which has a number of hemp-based products, including medicinal ones for pain and stress relief, sleep and skincare. It sells them online as well as in its Bengaluru store. Co-founders Loveena Sirohi and Rohit Kamath were keen trekkers from their college days. It was during their treks in the Himalayas that they first became interested in hemp and all the research going on around the world that could also help Indian growers.
Then in early 2017, Sirohi suffered a life-threatening accident that concentrated their minds on the medicinal uses of cannabis.
“My cheekbone was broken and I was administered high doses of pain medication. It was during that time we started looking deeper into research on cannabinoids, which was helping lots of people improve their physical and mental well-being without the serious downsides of allopathic drugs. We realized it wasn’t taught much in medical schools because of all the propaganda against cannabis,” recalls Sirohi. “I became our first guinea pig and a prime witness of experiencing the benefits of cannabidiol oils.”
The problem was in gaining access to them abroad, where it was very expensive, and trying to get a stable supply to India, where confusion prevailed on what was legal. This prompted the duo to dive into producing such products in India, working with what was allowed under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. The seeds and leaf extracts of the plants were exempted because of their low THC level, and that’s what goes into IHO’s products, for which they got an AYUSH licence.
It was still a challenge for the young, bootstrapped startup to get hemp supplies. “We have been spending months at a stretch in Uttarakhand, the only state that allows the cultivation of cannabis for horticulture. We built personal relations with farmers to stabilize the supply chain,” says Sirohi.
In places like Chamoli in Uttarakhand, IHO has been holding camps to evangelize contract farming of cannabis. Traditionally, the bhang from these plants has gone into chutneys and other food products.
Another young cannabis startup, Hempstreet, took a different approach by focusing on traditional ayurvedic formulations. It has its own R&D as well as tie-ups with CSIR and other labs to develop those, and it has been onboarding a nationwide network of doctors to dispense the products, instead of direct selling.
It launched a medication for relief from menstrual cramps in January, and has a pipeline of several other pain relief products.
“In the last three months, our product has become available in over 600 clinics across the country,” says Hempstreet co-founder Abhishek Mohan, who was earlier the MD of online vehicle marketplace Carmudi in the Philippines. He has also been running a startup incubator in New Delhi.
Hempstreet raised funding last year from US-based Pharmacon Holdings and Romain Barberis, an investor in US and Canadian cannabis startups. The startup has taken a pragmatic approach after seeing other entrepreneurs burn their fingers in attempts to sell cannabis products online.
“Rather than overhauling the regulatory framework and then changing the behaviour of the customer base, we looked at how to solve the problems of patients in the shortest time. That’s a different approach from that of other players who want India to become like Canada (one of the first countries in the world to legalize cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use),” says Hempstreet co-founder Shrey Jain.
Whichever approach works, pragmatism or activism, there’s no gainsaying the case for changing perceptions about cannabis in a land where it has been a part of traditional medicine, given the growing evidence of its benefits.