Srinagar- When you hear the word ‘Cannabis’ it often evokes thoughts of pot, dope, weed, and marijuana. But hidden behind the haze is a wonder drug, holding the promise of healing that outshines its ‘high’.
To realise this potential of healing, The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research – Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR-IIIM), Jammu, has initiated the ‘Cannabis Research Project’. Its goal is to explore the healing properties of Cannabis plant in India.
With a focus on advanced scientific research, the project aims to explore the means and ways in which Cannabis and its compounds can be used for medical purposes. This could revolutionize healthcare by offering more efficient and pathbreaking healthcare treatments in the region, which could be imported not just to Jammu and Kashmir, but the country as well.
History of Cannabis Research in Jammu and Kashmir
Speaking exclusively to Kashmir Observer Director CSIR-Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Dr Zabeer Ahmed explained that cannabis plant is often linked with getting “high” – a colloquial term for a state of intense intoxication that seemingly offers pleasure and relaxation. In the long run, however the relaxation turns into a maelstrom of addiction and destruction. Hence, the taboo around the plant, which the institute seeks to counter.
“We want to change how society views this plant. Back in 1941, our founder Director, Sir R N Chopra did some preliminary research on this plant. But over time, the plant was branded illegal with the introduction of NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act. Therefore, no fruitful or sustained research could be done on the plant. This eventually led to a fading of interest in research on it,” he said.
In 2015, the institute revisited their previous literature and work done on this plant, hoping to revive the research. “Due to the prohibitions surrounding Cannabis, we faced various obstacles. Simultaneously, we applied for a research license from the J&K government. In India, our institute became the first one to obtain the license which allowed us to conduct laboratory research using this plant material,” he said.
The second part of this license involved captive cultivation. “This means we had to grow the plants in a controlled environment to prevent any unauthorized access. We designated one acre of land at Chatha Farm in the outskirts of Jammu city for this purpose, and we collected over 500 plant accessions (An accession is a group of related plant material from a single species which is collected at one time from a specific location) from various regions in J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh,” Dr. Zabeer said.
Medical Benefits of Cannabis and Research Findings
Cannabis is made up of more than 120 components, which are known as cannabinoids. Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are the two most well-known and researched cannabinoids. THC is responsible for the “high” that many people associate with cannabis, while CBD is a non-intoxicating, non-euphoric component, according to the studies.
“While researchers are still working to understand how effectively cannabis can be used for medical purposes, there have already been a lot of promising results in the Western world. Some noteworthy examples include the first drug, Merinol, approved for treatment of nausea in 1995. Over the past decade, another botanical drug called Sativax was approved for neuropathic pain and stress, featuring key components like THC and CBD. Additionally, in 2018, Epidiolex gained fame as a wonder drug for epilepsy,” Principal Scientist, Medicinal Chemistry Division, CSIR-Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Dr. Parvinder Pal Singh told Kashmir Observer.
The Cannabis research project involves three organizations: CSIR, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in New Delhi, and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). “The operational framework has been established. In this mechanism, the CSIR will provide funding for the foundational research. When addressing safety and toxicological studies, DBT will offer its support,” he said.
Dr. Singh said their ongoing research started with comprehending the various species, sub-species, and chemical constituents of cannabis plant in India. “This foundational knowledge guides our research direction, including the study of cannabinoids. Of the 125 types of components present in the plant, only 10 have been studied. This leaves 90 percent of them largely unexplored, especially for pharmacological and medicinal purposes.”
The scientist said their research focuses on developing indigenous technology for two drugs, akin to Sativax and Epidiolex. “This is done in order to make them more accessible and affordable in J&K and India likewise, benefitting the common people. At present, a 100 ml bottle of epidiolex oral solution costs 30,000 rupees.”
Elaborating on the project, Dr. Singh said, although the compounds were already known in the Western world; the institute became the first to conduct this type of research activity in India.
“Among the compounds studied, CBD and THC are the main ones. Our research aims to identify varieties that produce CBD and THC separately. We have grown these varieties and compiled a list of CBD-rich and THC-rich varieties. Also, through our findings, we observed variations among different plant accessions. We analysed the chemical constituents of each plant material and identified the most suitable accession for our research,” Dr. Singh said.
Difference between wild and medically grown Cannabis
Cannabis is considered as a highly heterogenous plant. Even small changes in its environment can alter its chemical makeup, according to the researchers.
“In controlled conditions, we allow these plants to cross-pollinate, enabling us to perform comprehensive botanical and molecular characterizations of the resulting plants. This is the primary purpose of captive cultivation. Also, we carefully select and cultivate the identified plants. We continuously monitor their growth and pollination as well as the growth of subsequent generations,” Dr. Zabeer said.
Seconding him, Dr Singh said, their goal is to understand these factors. “Since THC, a psychoactive compound, might not always receive government approval, we’re working on creating a variety that produces only CBD, a non-psychoactive substance. To achieve this, we’re conducting controlled experiments on specific land by monitoring and optimizing conditions,” he added.
Dr. Singh detailed out that the chemical compounds are present in the flowering part of the plant. “We call it as inflorescence. The compounds are also present in the leaves and stems but high concentration is mostly found in the flower part. Also, these compounds are typically found in the female plant while as the male plants possess very less quantity,” he said.
Current status of the ‘Cannabis Research Project’
The project has marked the completion of the exploratory research phase. The next steps involve drug development, including regulatory toxicological studies (Toxicology is a field of science that helps us understand the harmful effects that chemicals, substances, or situations, can have on people, animals, and the environment), safety assessments, and advanced clinical trials.
“However, conducting these trials and Goods manufacturing practice (GMP is a concept for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards) in our facility is not possible, so we need to collaborate with the industry. To facilitate material transport and GMP manufacturing, we’ve submitted another application to the J&K government. This application is in the advanced stages of processing, with some clarifications and observations addressed. The government has cleared the NOC for the first part. But they need to establish UT-level policies for cannabis research. Once these policies are in place, we can proceed with advanced studies on this plant,” Dr. Zabeer emphasized.
The institute has also signed an MOU with a Canadian firm. “We’ve set specific goals for this collaboration, including understanding Indian cannabis varieties and their chemical profiles. However, we can’t begin with the collaboration yet as we still await certain approvals,” he said.
Dr. Singh further said that the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai is eager to collaborate on our research. They plan to conduct a clinical trial involving cancer patients. “The only thing holding us back is the need to finalize transportation and complete our pre-clinical studies. Once those are done, we can move forward with this initiative,” he added.
The scientist said the potential of this plant is remarkable. “With further research, we aim to develop a cannabis variety that contains optimal quantities of beneficial compounds and minimal psychoactive compounds. This is our ultimate goal, and we are actively working towards its realization. The transformation in this area of research could revolutionise the whole health sector.”
Dr. Zabeer stressed that the policy regarding cannabis should extend beyond just the Union Territory level. It should be enacted at the national level through legislation in parliament. “By implementing a unified national policy for cannabis research, we can transform this once-prohibited plant into a valuable resource, yielding useful components. Through research and product development, we can make significant contributions to the healthcare system while also benefiting J&K by potentially establishing local industries and creating jobs.”
Cannabis research has been a growing field of study worldwide, with increasing interest in its potential medical, economic, and social implications. Here are some key aspects of cannabis research happening around the world:
- Medical Cannabis Research: Many countries have been conducting research to explore the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and its components, such as cannabinoids (e.g., THC and CBD). Research has focused on various medical conditions, including chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. Israel, Canada, and the United States have been particularly active in this area.
- Cannabis Legalization Impact Studies: Several countries, such as Canada and Uruguay, have legalized cannabis for recreational use. Researchers in these countries have been studying the effects of legalization on public health, safety, and the economy. This includes assessing the impact on youth use, traffic accidents, and tax revenue.
- Hemp Research: Hemp, a variety of cannabis with low THC content, has gained popularity for its industrial and agricultural applications. Research on hemp focuses on its use in textiles, construction materials, biofuels, and more. The United States, Canada, and Europe have been at the forefront of hemp research.
- Social and Public Health Studies: Researchers are investigating the social and public health consequences of cannabis use, including its impact on mental health, addiction, and social equity. This research helps inform policies and interventions related to cannabis use.
- Genetics and Cultivation: Cannabis genetics and cultivation techniques have been areas of active research to develop strains with specific traits, optimize growth conditions, and increase crop yields. Countries like the Netherlands and Canada have been pioneers in this field.
- International Collaboration: Researchers from various countries collaborate on cannabis studies, sharing knowledge and resources. Organizations like the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI) promote global collaboration in cannabis research.
- Regulatory and Legal Research: As cannabis laws and regulations evolve, researchers are examining the effectiveness of different regulatory approaches, such as government-controlled markets versus private industry models. This research helps shape policy decisions.
- Safety and Quality Control: Ensuring the safety and quality of cannabis products, including those for medical and recreational use, is critical. Researchers investigate methods for quality control, product labeling, and testing to protect consumers.
- Environmental Impact: Cannabis cultivation can have environmental consequences, including water usage and energy consumption. Researchers are exploring sustainable practices for cannabis farming and their environmental impact.
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