The Bombay Hemp Company offers goods fashioned out of hemp, the lesser known cousin of ganja.
Nikita Puri reports.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Last year in April, senior narcotics officers were discussing the drug problem in Himachal Pradesh at a conference organised by the Institute for Narcotics Studies and Analysis, a think-tank.
Most of the talk centred around drug busts and how to tackle marijuana (and opium) farms.
Here, Jahan Peston Jamas, 27, went up to talk about legitimising and strengthening cannabis farms.
Jamas' proof-based talk on the industrial use of hemp (cannabis) was so convincing that a senior bureaucrat, who wanted to propose replacing these cultivations with apple orchards, paused to acknowledge his ideas as a way forward.
Jamas is one of the seven co-founders of Bombay Hemp Company (Boheco), a startup that offers goods fashioned out of hemp, the lesser known cousin of the stigma-heavy marijuana or ganja.
The talk of legalising medical marijuana has existed as long as the ban on it.
In a landmark move in the country, the government of Jammu and Kashmir has issued a licence to grow and study the medicinal properties of cannabis.
As part of a public-private partnership model, Boheco will work with the Council of Scientific and Medical Research under this licence.
Boheco's immediate goal is to provide scientists and doctors with "the right kind of active pharmaceutical ingredients" so as to bring cannabis as medicine to India, says Avnish Pandya, director of research and development.
Boheco's partner institutes include the National Brain Research Centre (Gurugram), the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (New Delhi) and the Tata Memorial Centre (Mumbai).
Their combined research is likely to impact seven or eight conditions, including chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and other cancer therapies, along with neurological disorders and drug-resistant epilepsy.
One of their biggest challenges has been to identify potential partners and advisers: An open-mindedness to the potential of cannabis was paramount. They found a suitable adviser in Romesh Bhattacharji, former narcotics commissioner of India.
"Though cannabis has been used in India for thousands of years, it is still illegal. The fact that this team is using laws regarding cultivation of cannabis and collaborating with the government has worked in its favour," says Bhattacharji.
He refers to the founders as members of a well-functioning football team.
Incidentally, when they aren't playing fantasy football, the co-founders unwind by sweating it out on the football ground.
All of them studied at Mumbai's H R College of Commerce and Economics. They bonded while working on a student-driven project to power homes in rural India with solar lighting.
When they travelled to the villages, whether in Rajasthan, Karnataka or Maharashtra, they saw an abundance of cannabis. It got them thinking about using the plant in the best way possible.
Their drive to provide a legitimate platform for hemp and cannabis was further shaped when Jamas returned after a road trip across Western Australia and narrated stories about a small town called Margaret River.
This town is best known for two things: Its thriving cultivation of grapes for wine and the presence of hemp in everything -- from food to clothing and more.
"They use hemp to make their shirts and surfboards and they use hemp oil in their salads to keep them healthy. It was a eureka moment to see how much this plant enhanced their lives," recalls Jamas.
If a small town in Australia could harness the potential of hemp this way, what stopped India that had acres of the crop?
By the time they left college, the seven were confident they wanted to work with a crop that has never really been treated kindly by laws and most governments.
Through food, medicine, retail and more, they are now on a mission to reintroduce cannabis to society.
To execute this vision, the seven -- all aged 27, except Sumit Shah, who is 26 -- systematically split themselves into three categories: The lab, the farm and market.
"This ensured that all of us had an adequate amount of autonomy in our work," says Chirag Tekchandaney, another co-founder.
When they first picked up jobs after college, they all lived dual lives. The first life was spent in offices that would help prepare them for the roles they'd take on at Boheco; the second one was laying the groundwork for the company.
Yash Kotak, for instance, worked with a media advertising company to help him understand what marketing strategies would work best for Boheco.
Delzaad Deolaliwala, another co-founder, trained in a law office to ensure he could take care of Boheco's legal side.
With family orchards growing sapotas and mangoes, he is also the only one who has a personal link to agriculture.
Pandya worked as an analyst to develop a scientific bent of mind. Having studied commerce and marketing in college, he progressed from "Google and Wikipedia research" to data-based science journals and learnt enough basics of chemistry and biology to hold a conversation with a scientist.
They realised early on that since hemp and cannabis fall in a highly regulated area, the government could either be the biggest deterrent in this venture -- or the biggest supporter.
"So we started working with the government's scientific bureaucracy to bring about cannabis medicine to their own patients. This means all our work is validated and we can actually bring cannabis as a medicine to India," says Pandya.
Their discussions with potential partners begin with a power point presentation on how the governments and farmers in countries like Canada, Germany and China approach cannabis.
But it is the contents of a "hemp bag" they always carry that really seals the deal: This bag contains scarves and stoles made in India, besides imported food products like hemp seeds and hemp oil and cosmetics made with hemp oil (think moisturising lotions).
From their travels, the team found that from Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, villages had those equipped with the knowledge of using "the bhang plant" to weave textiles.
In Punjab, they found the women had an inter-generational knowledge of the cosmetic practices: They use oil from cannabis seeds to get rid of stretch marks.
"They've done the research, they know the material well and they have their theories in place," says Aditya Narain Purohit, a scientist specialising in high-altitude plants and a Padma Shri awardee. Purohit doubles as an advisor to Boheco.
The cannabis plant is drought tolerant, high on yield and doesn't require pesticides.
It can thrive almost anywhere and it is weeded out almost everywhere.
While industrial hemp comes from the stalk and seeds, a large part of the medical research will involve leaves and buds of the plant.
For most of this bunch, breakfasts, lunches, tea times, dinners and holidays in the early days of the company were about satisfying their families' inquisitiveness about their cause.
What's the worst that can happen if you go on this path, Pandya remembers his father asking. "I told him the only thing that could happen is that we would fail. But even with that, we'd be more successful than many others because we would have learnt something that can be applied to something else in the future," he says.
As the team saw it, the flipside of diving into this untrodden territory wasn't that bad at all.
Today, their merchandise, woven in Uttarakhand and Mumbai, is available on online stores such as Handtribe.com and organic outlets in Puducherry, Goa and Rishikesh.
The granting of this licence is "the start of a realisation of a dream," says Shah.
Pandya says he looks forward to the day, perhaps 10 years in the future, when he meets a cancer survivor Boheco's research has helped, or perhaps a farmer who has benefited from their efforts.