Pakistan is creating a regulatory agency to administer its medical marijuana program

Pakistan’s recent moves to embrace medical marijuana could open many doors for the South Asian country. In February, Pakistani President Arif Alvi passed an executive order that ordered the creation of the Cannabis Control and Regulatory Authority (CCRA) “to regulate the cultivation, extraction, refining, production and sale of cannabis derivatives for medical and industrial purposes.” CCRA will consist of 13 board members, including representatives from other government departments and intelligence agencies, it said Pakistan today.

Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) Chairman Syed Hussain Abidi said the creation of CCRA is required by United Nations law. “U.N. regulations state that if a country wants to produce, process and sell cannabis-related products, it must have a federal entity to handle the supply chain and ensure compliance with international regulations,” Abidi said Al Jazeera. PCSIR has prepared a national cannabis policy for 2023, which the news outlet explained was the basis for this regulation.

The creation of an agency similar to CCRA was initially proposed in 2020 under former Prime Minister Imran Khan. The latest regulation establishes a range of infringement fees ranging from 10 to 200 million Pakistani rupees (or approximately $35,000 to $718,000). It is also seeking assistance from the Pakistan Anti-Drug Force to monitor illegal activities.

Cannabis cultivation is illegal in Pakistan, but some regions of the country have a long history of cultivation that has until now been largely ignored by the government. The new regulation will change this approach as it requires a license from the applicant interested in cultivation. “Technically, cultivation is now legal since the regulation was issued, but we are still in the process of developing policies and procedures and waiting for registration by the authority,” Abidi said. Cultivation permits will be issued for a period of five years, and the government will determine in which regions cultivation will be allowed.

In the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region and southwestern Balochistan province, it is estimated that a total of 28,000 hectares (or approximately 70,000 acres) of land are currently under cultivation. “We have a long tradition of growing cannabis. We have to take advantage of this opportunity,” Abidi explained.

Many other entrepreneurs want to get involved in the cultivation of medical marijuana, such as Aamir Dhedhi, who has seen the healing properties of medical marijuana with his own eyes. He said Al Jazeera that in 2014 he took his mother, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, to India to visit doctors there. They recommended she try CBD, which helped her manage her symptoms and reduce the tremors she was experiencing. “Seeing the impact of the oil on my mother’s well-being, this project became a passion for me. Now I want to help our local growers increase production and spread its use,” Dhedhi said.

Dhedhi is currently working with long-time farmers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan to improve and modernize their operations to be more efficient and grow higher quality produce. Today, growers grow in full sun and organically, with very little use of pesticides and other chemicals. “We have huge potential in this area to deliver health benefits with CBD. There is an opportunity to provide people with cheaper medical alternatives, which can help our domestic users and also (increase) export potential,” Dhedhi said. “This has the potential to provide financial benefits to our local growers.”

Another Tirah Valley grower, Suleman Shah, has been growing marijuana for eight years and shares Dhedhi’s passion for medical marijuana. Shah said Al Jazeera that the government has not been a problem so far, but one of the challenges it faces is competition from cannabis grown in the neighboring country of Afghanistan. “When cannabis was grown in Afghanistan, we often suffered losses and were unable to recover our investment in growing the plant. But since the Taliban imposed the ban, our company is doing much better,” Shah said. The Afghan Taliban regained power in 2021.

Shah said that before the Taliban returned to power, he collected 50,000 Pakistani rupees (about $179) per acre, but last year he managed to collect 500,000 Pakistani rupees (or $1,797). “If the government puts in place a regulatory framework, it will only help farmers more,” Shah said. “They can provide farmers with expertise, help them research and develop better quality products for people, allowing them to move beyond simple recreational use.”

Some people fear that it is too late for Pakistan to start making money from medical marijuana, as former federal minister Fawad Chaudhry did. “My suggestion (in 2020) was simply to allocate space to develop the plant, put out international tenders for investors and let them come here,” Chaudhry said. “But we wasted our potential and lost the time advantage. The world has moved on.”

Formula Swiss co-founder Robin Roy Krigslund-Hansen expressed concern about oversaturation as other countries begin to legalize. “Germany recently legalized it. China is the main producer. Latin American countries also do this. So you have a lot of production from different countries, but when everyone is a producer and a seller, who will be the buyer?” – said Krigslund-Hansen. He also expressed doubts whether Pakistan would be able to keep pace with the requirements and demand for licensed crops. “If you want to sell medical-grade marijuana, it should be produced indoors to ensure consistency and uniform production,” Krigslund-Hansen said. “When grown indoors, electricity costs to maintain lighting and air conditioning will be extremely high, all to ensure that the product remains of the highest quality at all times. And that will cost a significant amount of money.”