A History of Hemp in India
You might not immediately associate hemp and India, but they actually share a long history. Traditional hemp use in India stretches back thousands of years, with its origins in Ayurveda. But the history of hemp in India has not been a smooth one. After more than a century of increasing regulation and even criminalization, we are finally starting to see a new dawn for hemp in India.
But before we explore the history and future of the Indian hemp industry, let’s learn a bit more about what hemp is and what the fuss is all about.
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, 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 was used in India 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
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 can ultimately lead to the production and distribution of drugs.
The regulation of cannabis 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, 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 the cultivation of hemp, as long as they have the infrastructure in place to ensure a THC content below 0.3%. The Uttarakhand state was the first to allow the legal cultivation of hemp in India.
The Legalities of hemp cultivation in India today
Uttar Pradesh has now joined Uttarakhand in legalizing hemp cultivation. 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, Indian manufacturers of hemp products 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 hemp cultivation will also take off in India, so that India can supply its own manufacturers as well as contribute to the global market for hemp.
Hemp: “the OG Miracle Crop”
Hemp has so many practical uses, the opportunities for industrial cultivation of hemp seem limitless.
Medicinal Uses of Hemp
You may be familiar with “medical marijuana,” but hemp has non-psychoactive medicinal applications, too. We’ve already seen how hemp was an important part of Ayurvedic medicine going back thousands of years, but it also found a home in modern medicine starting in the 19th Century.
Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1809-1889) is recognized as the person responsible for introducing cannabis to Western medicine while he was serving the East India Company in Bengal, and it remained popular until the 20th Century.
Pharmacological researchers discovered many hemp based treatments for a variety of ailments; cannabis leaves alone were found useful to treat more than 25 diseases! In general, hemp has been found to be useful as an analgesic, a narcotic, a stomachic, an antispasmodic, an anodyne and as a sedative agent.
And the research continues. More than 1000 publications have described the medicinal uses of cannabis sativa in the last 50 years.
The Use of Hemp in Construction
Industrial hemp strands are extremely strong, and some of the manufacturing methods can make them up to 200 times stronger than steel!
Most of the time, though, hemp is mixed with lime to create blocks of insulation for use during construction. Not strong enough to support the structure on their own, these hemp blocks act as an insulating layer between concrete blocks. When mixed with even larger proportions of a lime-based binder, hemp can also be used to create an insulating plaster.
Another really interesting use for hemp is in the creation of composite panels for cars. Fibreglass, hemp fibre, flax and another fibre, kenaf (also known as Deccan hemp or Hibiscus cannabinus) are mixed together to make a composite material that has been used by car manufacturers since 2002!
Hemp is a nutritious food
Today, hemp seeds and hemp seed oil constitute a major part of the hemp industry in India.
Hemp seeds are consumed to supplement protein and iron requirements. The seeds can be eaten raw, ground into hemp meal, sprouted or made into dried sprout powder. They are delicious sprinkled on cereal, mixed into baked goods or added to a shake. Hemp seeds can also be used to make “hemp milk,” a satisfying non-dairy beverage.
Not just for humans, hemp seeds have been used in bird feed mix as well. A survey in 2003 showed that more than 95% of hemp seed sold in the European Union at that time was used in animal and bird feed.
But wait, there’s more! Not to be out-done, the leaves of the hemp plant can also be consumed. They are eaten raw as a leafy vegetable, or, pressed to make juice.
Hemp is an amazing sustainable fibre for textiles
Hemp is one of the oldest natural fibres known to man. Like linen (which comes from flax), hemp is a bast fibre. Bast fibres have great cooling characteristics, making them perfect for warm-weather clothing. They are also strong with good resistance, naturally lending them to the manufacture of utilitarian items like ropes and sacks.
These days, bast fibres like hemp and linen are often blended with other natural and man-made fibres, including cotton, silk or polyester.
Hemp fibre can also be used to make paper!
Hemp is a great choice for paper, not least of which because it is fast-growing and more sustainable than wood. The fibres in hemp are up to five times longer than wood pulp fibres, making the resulting hemp paper much stronger, with a higher tensile strength and tear-resistance.
It also has a significantly lower lignin content, making it less vulnerable to degradation over time compared to paper made from wood pulp. As a result, fine quality hemp paper is mostly used in cigarettes, banknotes and technical filter paper.
Other uses for hemp: Bio Fuels, Cooking Oils, Paint, Agriculture and more!
Hempseed oil is another “wonder product” to come out of hemp, with a wide variety of potential uses. (And before you ask, but does hemp oil have THC?, the answer is yes, but they are negligible amounts, just like any other hemp product.)
What can you use hemp oil for?
· Oil-based paint and plastics
· A moisturizing agent in creams
Filtered hemp oil can be used directly to power diesel engines, though it is expensive compared to other raw materials. An alcohol-based fuel can also be made by fermenting the whole hemp plant.
When oxidized, hempseed oil becomes solid which makes it so versatile for cooking, beauty products, paint and plastic.
Beyond these uses, hemp can also be used for animal bedding (i.e., in horse stalls), for weed control and for water and soil purification. Hemp has phytoremediation properties to remove toxins, unwanted contamination and radioisotopes from the soil. Imagine that!
Hemp in India Today
With the legal landscape gradually opening up and the growing demand for organic and eco-friendly materials, the business of hemp in India is booming.
A recent study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy found that the global market for hemp products is estimated to be worth USD $4.7 billion. Right now, India’s contribution to that market is a mere 0.001%. With the world market expected to grow to USD $26.6 billion by 2025, now is the time for India to try to grab a bigger piece of the pie – and the country’s entrepreneurs know it.
Increasingly, many companies and entrepreneurs are coming forward to promote the industrial production and use of hemp in India. People have started strongly lobbying for a hemp industry. New products such as sunscreen, car parts, building materials, non-toxic ink, batteries, cosmetics, and more are continually being discovered.
Here are just some of the players emerging onto the hemp scene in India today:
Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO) – Co-founded in 2013 by Jahan Peston Jamas, BOHECO is changing the very landscape of hemp cultivation in India. BOHECO is involved in all aspects of industrial hemp from food to textiles to clothing to medicine, and operates its own fashion brand, B Label. But they are no ordinary company. Driven by a social vision, they state that they have assisted the livelihood of over 500 farmers in the Himalayas.
Hemp Fabric Lab – is another innovative player in the Indian hemp industry. The Hemp Fabric Lab produces innovative textiles that are made from either pure hemp or hemp blends with organic cotton, Tencel, silk, and wool. One of the things that makes the Hemp Fabric Lab stand out in the textile industry is its willingness to sell just a few metres of hemp fabric at a time, instead of forcing burdensome minimum order quantities on its customers. This helps encourage even small designers and clothing companies to use hemp fabric in their creations.
Himalayan Hemp – Started by a group of young entrepreneurs, they claim that hemp can be converted into 25,000 products! They also have a fascinating blog if you want to read more about all the properties and applications of hemp.
Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA) – a non-profit group, is promoting the use of nutritional and industrial hemp, generating awareness about the benefits of hemp and providing data analytics about the industry.
Gohemp – focuses on hemp-based materials for buildings and interiors. Building blocks and board are the company’s main products.
HempCann Solutions – the first clinic in India to offer cannabis-based medical treatment opened in Bangalore in 2020.
Other start-up companies include Health Horizons, Foxxy, Hempsters, Vedi, GreenJams, HempStreet, NHempCo., Health Horizons, Satliva, Greenjams…just to name a few!
The Future of Hemp in India is Now
Even though there are only two states that have currently legalized hemp cultivation, this is a good beginning, and a positive sign about things to come. Gradually, other state governments should open up to the cultivation and industrial production of hemp in India. Industry and entrepreneurs simply need to continue to explore innovative ways of exploiting this miracle crop. And with hemp, it truly seems like the sky’s the limit.