Pakistan bets on a cannabis high as its economy struggles

When Aamir Dhedhi took his mother to India in 2014 to get treatment for Parkinson’s disease, the doctors there advised him to procure cannabidiol (CBD) oil to help her manage her pain. It was the first time that Dhedhi, a Karachi-based entrepreneur, learned about the medicinal use of the cannabis derivative.

On returning to Pakistan, the businessman ordered a small quantity of the oil from the United States. Almost instantly, it helped calm his mother’s nerves and reduce tremors, he said. Dhedhi became a firm believer in CBD’s benefits.

“Seeing the oil’s impact on my mother’s wellbeing, this has grown into a passion project for me,” the 49-year-old businessman told Al Jazeera.

While his mother eventually passed away in 2020, Dhedhi said he has since seen others get relief from CBD oil. “Now, I want to help our local growers expand their production and help spread its usage,” he said.

Dhedhi is not alone in wanting to develop a homegrown industry for medicinal cannabis.

In February, Pakistan approved the passage of an ordinance that created the Cannabis Control and Regulatory Authority (CCRA), a body tasked with “regulating the cultivation, extraction, refining, manufacturing, and sale of cannabis derivatives for medical and industrial purposes”.

The regulatory body will be overseen by a 13-member board, which will include representatives from different government departments, intelligence agencies as well as the private sector.

The establishment of the regulatory body, which was first proposed in 2020 under the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, points to Pakistan’s efforts to tap into a fast-growing and lucrative global cannabis-derivatives-related industry.

Cannabis plantation has been going on in Pakistan’s tribal districts for decades despite being illegal. [Courtesy of Islam Gul Afridi]
Cannabis plantation has been going on in Pakistan’s tribal districts for decades despite being illegal [Courtesy of Islam Gul Afridi]
According to Ireland-based Research and Markets, a research organisation, the global cannabidiol market, which stood at nearly $7bn in 2022, is expected to cross $30bn by 2027.

Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant that gives users a high, CBD is not psychoactive and believed to have therapeutic effects. It is increasingly prescribed by doctors to help with anxiety, chronic and acute pain, and other medical conditions.

Syed Hussain Abidi – the chairman of the Pakistan Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (PCSIR), a government-owned research organisation, and member of the board of governors of the CCRA – said the creation of the regulator was a requirement of United Nations laws.

“The UN laws say that if a country wants to produce, process and conduct sales of cannabis-related products, it must have a federal entity that will deal with supply chain and ensure international compliance,” he told Al Jazeera.

The regulatory framework for the CCRA specifies the maximum level of THC in the cannabis derivative to be 0.3 percent to avoid the abuse of medicinal products and use them recreationally.

The ordinance has laid out strict penalties for any violation of laws, with fines ranging from 10 million Pakistani rupees ($35,000) to 200 million Pakistani rupees ($716,000), with monitoring and inspection conducted in tandem with Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics force.

Abidi said the country could use cultivation of the herb to its advantage and generate revenue through export, foreign investment and domestic sales to shore up its precarious foreign reserves.

 

Until now, Pakistani law has barred the cultivation of cannabis, but the country’s northwestern region, particularly the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is home to thousands of hectares of land where the crop has been cultivated for hundreds of years. For the most part, governments have chosen to look away rather than crack down.

But the February ordinance aims to change that. On the one hand, it talks about “regulating” the area where cannabis is cultivated in the country, and issuing licences to farmers for growing the plant.

On the other hand, the new regulatory regime could give the government a clearer mandate to penalise those who produce cannabis without a licence. The National Cannabis Policy, which the PCSIR prepared last year and which served as the basis of the ordinance, mentions that the broader goal of the regulations is to curb the “illegal and prevailing cultivation of cannabis”.

“Technically, now the cultivation is legal since the ordinance has been passed, but we are still in [the] process of developing rules and procedures and awaiting registration of the authority,” Abidi said.

Licences, it is expected, will be issued for five-year periods. The federal government will designate areas where cannabis can be grown legally.

<<Aljazeera>>