Pakistan can become a cannabis powerhouse. The only problem is getting through the bureaucratic labyrinth

It is high-time Pakistan reaps the benefits of the hemp crop. But what exactly is the potential of growing this crop and what has been standing in the way?

The plains of South Asia, due to their geographical advantages, provide irrigation opportunities for many crops. Some of these crops hold a staple food status while others are essential for industrial activity. But one crop that perhaps has great uses in the industrial pharmaceutical sectors, is not only considered sinister, but invokes larger debates on a social, religious and most importantly regulatory level. That plant is Cannabis.

In recent years, the debate surrounding cannabis legalisation has swept across the globe like wildfire, igniting passions, sparking controversies, and challenging long-held beliefs. Yet, in Pakistan, a nation steeped in tradition yet eager for progress, the discourse takes on a unique flavour—one shaped by a complex interplay of history, politics, science and economics.

However, the former President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi, in one of his last acts in office, gave his approval for the Cannabis Control and Regulatory Authority Ordinance 2024. The ordinance allows for the cultivation, extraction, refining, manufacturing, and sale of cannabis derivatives for medical and industrial purposes. While the ordinance is promised to expand horizons for Pakistan’s export sector, it is important to dive into what those horizons are and why has it taken Pakistan so long to realise that Cannabis can be grown. 

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis, often referred to as marijuana or hemp, unlike its reputation, is an immensely versatile plant. This plant has been cultivated for thousands of years. Belonging to the Cannabaceae family, cannabis is known for its distinct leaves, serrated edges, and iconic five-leaf arrangement.

It comes in several varieties, each with its unique characteristics and properties. The two primary species of cannabis are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, with Cannabis ruderalis considered a third, lesser-known species.

Cannabis sativa: Known for its tall stature, narrow leaves, and long flowering cycles, Cannabis sativa is typically grown in equatorial regions with ample sunlight and warm temperatures. Sativa strains are prized for their energising effects, making them popular among recreational users.

Cannabis indica: In contrast, Cannabis indica is characterised by its shorter, bushier stature, broader leaves, and shorter flowering cycles. Indica strains are often cultivated in cooler climates and mountainous regions, where they thrive in environments with shorter daylight hours. Indica varieties are valued for their relaxing and sedative effects, making them sought after for medicinal and therapeutic use.

With rich landscape having access to equatorial plains and towering altitudes, Pakistan is a country, who’s soil is conducive for the growth of both the Indica and the Sativa varieties.

Why Cannabis?

Apart from the well-known recreational use, the cannabis plant offers a plethora of byproducts and uses, ranging from medicinal and therapeutic applications to industrial and commercial purposes.

Cannabis contains a myriad of compounds known as cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce various effects. Medicinal cannabis products, such as oils, tinctures, and capsules, are used to alleviate symptoms of conditions such as chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and nausea, among others. 

Beyond its medicinal and recreational uses, cannabis has a long history of industrial applications. Hemp, a variety of cannabis with low THC content, is valued for its fibrous stalks, which can be processed into textiles, paper, building materials, and biofuels. Hemp has been used in textile production for thousands of years due to its versatile and durable properties. 

Hemp fibres are extracted from the stalks of the cannabis sativa plant and processed into yarns or threads. These fibres can then be woven or knitted into various types of fabrics, ranging from lightweight and breathable materials to heavier, more durable textiles.

Pakistan currently relies mostly on cotton to run its fabric industry. Once the crown jewel of Pakistan’s agriculture industry and the backbone of our textile export economy is now barely making its ends meet. This makes hemp-textile an option all the more explorable in the recent past.

Hemp seeds are also rich in protein and essential fatty acids, making them a valuable ingredient in food products such as hemp milk, protein powder, and cooking oil.

Why not?

So with so many apparent business use cases, what has stopped Pakistan from growing hemp?

For starters, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 categorises cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance, subject to strict controls and regulations. Article 28 of the convention specifically addresses the cultivation of cannabis, stating that parties to the convention must limit the cultivation of the cannabis plant to licit purposes, such as medical and scientific research, and ensure that the illicit cultivation of cannabis is prohibited and penalised.

As a signatory of the treaty, Pakistan has had a similar stance regarding the treatment of cannabis. However, one can note that article 28 clearly states that the cultivation for licit purposes is not prohibited. Why then did Pakistan never think about growing hemp?

Before answering this question, it is important to note that the question refers to the state regulating the growth. Pakistan- as a region has been growing cannabis for more than thousands of years, a tradition often unaffected by international treaties. From the religious significance of the substance for various minorities to the recreational abuse, Pakistan has seen it all, except for the monetary benefits. According to UNODC’s National drug user survey, more than 4.5 million people are completely dependent upon drugs. 

Another reason for a hushed silence regarding the cannabis regulation is Pakistan’s historically maintained strict anti-drug laws, which have hindered the legal cultivation of cannabis. While the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 allows for regulated cultivation for medical and scientific purposes, the interpretation and implementation of these provisions within Pakistan’s legal framework, of criminalising possession and cultivation poses challenges. Cannabis has also long been associated with drug abuse and illicit activities in Pakistan, leading to cultural and social stigma surrounding its cultivation and use.

Why now?

The story of Pakistan’s cannabis renaissance does not trace its roots far back. It was as recent as 2020 when Fawad Chaudhry, the PTI science minister dared to come forward with an opportunistic future. As Minister for Science & Technology, he became a champion of the cause of production of industrial cannabis/hemp. Since the hemp plant could be harnessed for everything from textiles to medicine, the science minister assumed jurisdiction.

However, like most of PTI’s endeavours, Chaudhry’s vision was not without its detractors. With the government of PTI out of office in 2021, the science ministry still eyed the cultivation of hemp. Around this time, Nawabzada Shahzain Bugti, the minister for narcotics control approached Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif saying that hemp relates to marijuana and his ministry should be the regulator of hemp trade and cultivation.The Ministry of Narcotics Control, wary of the plant’s association with its domain, had already stood as a formidable obstacle, threatening to stifle the nascent green revolution before it could even take root. 

And hence the federal cabinet decided to shift the mandate of the hemp issue from the science ministry to the narcotics ministry in December, 2022.

The ministry of science pushed on, rallying for support from like-minded individuals within the government and beyond. Their efforts bore fruit in the form of the “National Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis Policy,” a groundbreaking document that laid the groundwork for Pakistan’s journey into the world of cannabis regulation. 

This document was prepared by the ministry of science and was shared with the anti narcotics, food and commerce ministries. The federal cabinet in the PDM-tenure made a committee making both the science and narcotics control ministers, chairmans of the committee.

With the document released in early 2023, and the Ministry of Narcotics Control on board by mid 2023, the policy hit another bump in the road when the ministry of food came looking for a share in the cannabis pie. The issue was however resolved as the policy saw its final stamp of approval on 26 February. With its passage, Pakistan signalled its commitment to international conventions on narcotics control while charting a course towards a more enlightened approach to cannabis regulation.

A Global Perspective

Pakistan’s cannabis renaissance is not just a local affair—it is part of a larger global movement towards legalisation and regulation. As countries around the world grapple with the social, economic, and political implications of cannabis legalisation, Pakistan stands at the forefront of this paradigm shift, offering lessons and insights that resonate far beyond its borders.

As shared by the initial ministry of science report to the cabinet, the global cannabis industry is expected to grow by almost $100 billion by 2026, making it very difficult to ignore. With the favourable climate that Pakistan has, experts feel that this should have been on the country’s agenda years ago. 

Shahnawaz Ali
Shahnawaz Ali
The author is a Business and Finance journalist at Profit and can be reached via email at [email protected] and via twitter @shahnawaz_ali1

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