Note from the author: This is an opinion post created on the basis of my personal experience and conversations I’ve had within the industry. I was the co-founder of ITSHEMP, a cannabis marketplace that launched in November 2019. In my 3 years of experience at the company, I conversed with almost all the players in the Indian Cannabis industry trying to understand their aims, challenges, and innovations. This post expresses my personal opinion on the matter based on this experience.
The Indian cannabis industry has steadily been growing for the past 3 years. With FSSAI regulating hemp seeds and seed products, states formulating hemp cultivation policies, and the Central government telling Delhi HC that the medical use of cannabis is allowed in the country, the industry has seen its share of achievements.
The industry’s landscape has witnessed growth across all sectors—from nutrition and grooming to fashion and home décor to health and wellness. And yet despite over 100 companies working actively to provide a rather increasingly wide range of cannabis-based products, buyers remain hesitant to adopt these into their lives.
Buyers’ hesitancy, in this case, cannot be pinned down to one reason. There are a number of factors that contribute to it and a closer look at each of these tells us that they’re all very well-placed.
The taboo associated with the cannabis plant is perhaps the most obvious reason contributing to this scepticism. Cannabis gets you high still remains a popular notion among many. The use of cannabis is largely reserved for religious purposes with a bias to view anyone who uses cannabis as a stoner.
Additionally, many fear that using cannabis will cause them to get addicted to it.
For a country where cannabis has been used for centuries, this notion appears to be ironic and funny at the same time. However, one cannot entirely blame the buyers. When it comes to health, everyone exercises caution.
Cannabis does have compounds with intoxicating properties and some forms of cannabis can cause addiction. So, people’s fears of experiencing intoxication and developing a dependency on the drug are not entirely misplaced.
Lack of Awareness, Education, and Clarity
For the group of people who do understand the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, a lack of awareness, education, and clarity makes adoption difficult. Even if one learns the difference between CBD and THC and memorizes the dosage requirement, a rudimentary understanding of the plant’s reaction to the body is largely missing.
Let’s take hemp seeds as an example. Users can educate themselves about the nutritional benefits of the seeds but are still unable to answer the question of How to use them? Hemp foods have not yet found a comfortable place in the Indian kitchens and many users are unsure of how, when, and in what proportion to use them.
Moving on to CBD, since the law of the land does not have any clear guidelines on its use, the entire operation remains in a grey area. This does not necessarily stop buyers from using CBD but does raise questions and confusion in their minds regarding the quality and safety of the products.
If there are no clear guidelines on how the extract is to be processed, how can the buyer be sure that what they see in the market is authentic? This is a genuine concern that stops many from adopting CBD despite its innumerable therapeutic benefits.
One would think the process would be easier for medical (read: Ayurvedic) cannabis formulations since they’re considered to be ayurvedic medicines and are prescribed by doctors. But that’s not entirely true.
Cannabis is a small part of the Ayurvedic system of medicine. While the ancient texts do mention about 191 cannabis formulations for a variety of ailments, the majority of formulations available in the market today are proprietary in nature. How is the buyer to ensure that the new ingredients that a seller has added to their formulation are safe to consume?
One can argue that medical cannabis products prescribed by certified Ayurvedic doctors should be safe. But the author’s individual interviews have revealed that a majority of doctors are themselves unaware and uneducated on this topic. Not being able to trust a doctor with your health is, without a doubt, a fearful situation.
Many sellers operate on a product-first approach which often creates a disconnect between what the buyer needs and what the seller is offering. The aim should be to create products that provide a solution for their problem and not to find the problems that an existing product can solve.
Hemp, CBD, and Cannabis products are, at present, expensive in India. There is no denying that. A number of factors contribute to this: unavailability of regular raw material, expensive extraction processes, appropriate packaging to prevent the product from degrading, etc.
An average Indian buyer cannot afford cannabis-based medicines, especially if they are to be renewed every month. This is perhaps the second most common reason that stops buyers from adopting cannabis products.
Where is the Solution?
The steady growth of the Indian cannabis industry has happened only because some steps in the right direction have been taken.
Education about the medical properties of cannabis compounds at the most fundamental level will play a key role in eliminating buyers’ uncertainty. This education, however, needs to happen at two levels.
Both consumers and doctors need to gain knowledge about the subject. The notion that cannabis gets you high needs to be shifted. While the intoxicating effects of cannabis cannot be denied, it is important to remember that the plant is much more than that.
Buyers also need to have a clear understanding of the product they’re using, how it will affect them, and what to do in case of side effects especially when it comes to products like CBD, that don’t have clear guidelines of use yet.
For doctors, it is imperative to learn about the scope of cannabis formulations, how and for which problems they work, and what to do in case someone experiences a side effect.
Doctors should also take on the responsibility to learn about the interactions these medications can have with other drugs. Since most people are currently using CBD or medical cannabis formulations as an add-on medicine, a crucial analysis of other medications they might be taking becomes necessary.
For nutritional products, buyers need to make themselves aware of who can consume which product and how much.
Driving Down the Price Point
The price point is a very important aspect that hinders the widespread adoption of hemp, CBD, and cannabis products. While it may not be possible to drastically reduce the prices overnight, steady strategies can help.
The availability of appropriate raw materials needs to be streamlined. Even though some states have cultivation policies in place, the expected number of farmers aren’t growing the plant.
Why? Because the post-policy efforts to educate the farmers about the benefits and methods of cultivating different varieties of the plant have not been made. If this process is streamlined across states with favourable growing conditions, the raw material needed to create the products will be widely available which will bring down the cost of the process as well as the final product.
Governing bodies need to lay down clear guidelines regarding the scope of use of hemp, CBD, and cannabis products along with the consequences in cases of digression. This single step can largely reduce the buyers’ hesitancy.
Moreover, clear guidelines will also help in streamlining the entire supply chain—from cultivation to sale. A sense of responsibility will enter the picture and buyers will have something legitimate to fall back on in case someone wrongs them.
Clear Value Proposition for Buyers
Sellers need to clearly define their products’ value proposition for the buyers in order to avoid confusion. Rather than having a plethora of products for buyers to choose from, sellers should adopt a people-first approach and formulate products that the public truly needs. This way, not only will they be solving a problem but they will also have a clearly defined audience.
Buyers at the same time won’t have to browse through hundred different products only to end up confused and overwhelmed. They’d know right away where the solution to their problem is.
More Empirical Evidence
The evidence supporting the benefits of CBD and proprietary cannabis formulations in India is largely anecdotal. The empirical evidence that the industry currently relies on comes from the West. But something closer to home would definitely add more value.
A lot changes with geography—variety and chemical make-up of the plant, genes and diet and lifestyle of the people, etc. Therefore, having more empirical evidence supporting the use of cannabis-based formulations for different ailments will instil a sense of security in buyers and give a direction to sellers.
Players in the industry can collaborate with the government and/or medical institutions to carry out drug trials (after receiving all due permissions and consent) the results of which can be collated to support the use of these medicines.