It appears Pakistan may soon be entering the lucrative and growing global cannabis industry. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government announced late last year that it would allow for the industrial production of hemp, a cannabis plant containing cannabidiol (CBD) that many experts believe has numerous therapeutic benefits and is generally sold in the form of gel capsules, gummies, oils, supplements, and extracts.
Unlike its cousin, marijuana, hemp does not contain significant quantities of the psychoactive component known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the compound most associated with the intoxicating effects of cannabis. Although hemp-derived CBD production in Pakistan would mostly be for export markets, its use domestically for medical purposes has been legal since September of 2020, meaning that new production could also service a growing domestic market.
More recently, Pakistan’s Minister of Science and Technology Shibli Faraz is reported to have told the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Science and Technology that the government is set to introduce legislation to regulate the domestic cannabis industry imminently. This represents a huge economic opportunity for Pakistan as the country struggles to address its chronic current account deficit by boosting exports and diversifying its agricultural sector.
The use of CBD products related to health and wellness is set to experience exponential growth globally. This trend should be accelerated by the recent UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) decision to reclassify cannabis as a “therapeutic product.”
In a consumer report from 2019, researchers estimated that 64 million people in the United States had tried CBD within a year of the study. The CBD market is also just starting to grow in Europe well as in other regions such as South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Fortune Business Insights recently reported that the global cannabinoid market is projected to grow from just under $3.7 billion in 2021 to approximately $58 billion by 2028, which represents a compound annual growth rate of 47 percent.
Pakistan’s regional neighbours have also taken notice of this potential economic opportunity. Last November, the Sri Lankan Minister of Indigenous Medicine, Sisira Jayakody, announced that his government would introduce legislation to allow for the cultivation of hemp-derived CBD products for both domestic use and export. In Afghanistan, the new Taliban government claims that it is close to signing a deal with foreign investors to develop a cannabis processing centre to produce medicinal cannabis products for export. Last year, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued new regulations that would allow hemp to be used as a food source domestically.
Yet, Pakistan has the potential to more than hold its own against this regional competition. The country is home to highly desirable cannabis strains that grow naturally in the wild. These strains tend to be more stable and have characteristics that are sought after by scientists as they continue to study the potential therapeutic benefits of the plant. The abundance of highly desirable strains of seeds may, in and of itself, set Pakistan up as a leading exporter.
So, how can policymakers ensure that Pakistan is set up to capitalise on these built-in advantages? A logical first step would be to leverage the knowledge and experience of the Pakistani diaspora. There are several Pakistani expats and their offspring working in the international cannabis and CBD industries. These include experts in Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP)-certified manufacturing processes, cultivation techniques, international treaty provisions, logistics, sales and marketing.
Unfortunately, such outreach has been lacking to date. Attempts to connect with Pakistani diplomatic missions to try and learn more about the regulatory framework being developed rarely yield any meaningful results. This needs to change if Pakistan is to achieve its full potential within the global CBD industry. By tapping into this built-in knowledge base of overseas Pakistanis, and by leveraging its built-in advantages, Pakistan is well positioned to eventually be a leader in this lucrative global industry.
The writer is a Canadian political strategist and senior vice president
of corporate and public affairs at High Tide Inc, a Canada-based cannabis retailer.
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