High time

Published February 3, 2020
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

SINCE we’re always looking for ways to boost exports, and since we are told that it’s a good idea to think outside of the box, here’s a budding idea: cannabidiol, or CBD oil as it is widely known. This is a chemical component of the cannabis plant, the local variant of which we know as the bhang plant (you know, the ones you often find growing wild on the side of the road up north). Obtaining CBD is fairly simple, and only involves extracting the chemical from the cannabis plant and then diluting it with carrier oil like coconut oil or something similar.

Here one must point out that CBD, even though it is extracted from the cannabis plant, is NOT psychoactive (it can’t get you high) unlike tetrahydrocannabinol which is the psychoactive component found in the cannabis plant. In fact, CBD can also be extracted from the hemp plant — a phenotype of the cannabis plant which has no psychoactive properties whatsoever — though the demand for hemp-extracted CBD is considerably less. Basically, what I’m saying is that I am categorically not promoting the use of narcotics here so please don’t file a petition against me.

CBD is now a billion-dollar industry in the US alone.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s return to why I’m talking about CBD in the first place. CBD is being touted as the next best thing in ‘natural’ healthcare, and is said to relieve pain, possibly reduce anxiety and depression and even alleviate symptoms related to cancer and the side effects of cancer treatments such as nausea and vomiting. Naturally, the jury is still out on some of these supposed benefits, but that hasn’t stopped CBD oil from becoming the next big health craze with millions singing its praises worldwide

CBD has also made inroads into Pakistan, and a simple Google search shows many Facebook-based businesses and online shopping sites selling CBD oil. Since this is a largely unregulated industry there is no way to actually gauge the effectiveness or composition of these products, but it is safe to say that it is a small but growing domestic market for it as well.

But the real money is in export, and Pakistan needs to grab a piece of this lucrative pie. How lucrative? Well CBD is now a billion-dollar industry in the United States alone, with a 30ml bottle being sold for anything up to $75.

Where there is demand, there will always be supply and while the top names in CBD export are the usual suspects (China accounts for $912 million worth of exports in 2018, the US bagged $308m and India scored an impressive $283m), the next frontier is in Africa, which is seeing a veritable Green Rush. Take the tiny, landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, with a population of a little over 2m, which became the first African country to issue licences for the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 2018 and is looking to make cannabis cultivation a mainstay of its agrarian economy.

South Africa and Zimbabwe are also following suit and Uganda, which has been struggling with the issue of legislating this industry since 2015, has nevertheless seen a huge increase in the number of people and companies looking to grow and export marijuana under licence.

If you need further assurance that CBD oil production is not a Trojan horse for the industrial production of marijuana (an illegal though widely consumed substance in Pakistan in the form of hashish), then take a look at China which, while having some of the strictest drug control policies in the world, has devoted large tracts of land in the Yunnan province to the cultivation of cannabis for the purpose of CBD extraction. One must also note that the varieties being grown there do not contain enough THC to get you high.

Many countries are now thinking far beyond CBD, because the overall cannabis market (both regulated and illicit) is now valued at upwards of $340 billion with about 263 million cannabis consumers worldwide. The global cannabis report 2019, released by New Frontier Data, states the reasons for this growth: “The legal cannabis industry has truly gone global … More than 50 countries around the world have legalised some form of medical cannabis, while six countries have legalised cannabis for adult use.”

Pakistan is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this growing demand, not only thanks to a large agrarian economy, but also because, well, we grow cannabis anyway. As mentioned earlier, it grows wild in many places and areas like the Tirah valley, the climate and soil of which make it child’s play to grow high-quality cannabis. Beyond that, hydroponic and vertical farming would make this a viable option on a smaller scale and well-suited for many of Pakistan budding entrepreneurs as well.

The problems here are largely societal (someone is bound to throw a fit at the idea) and legislative. We need to go green to earn some much-needed greenbacks.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2020

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