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The government’s decision to legalise the cultivation of hemp met with the usual toxicity of taunts and banter from the opposition benches. But it’s a much-needed first step along a path that the world’s leading companies and economies are already following. Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry puts the global market size at $25 billion and says ‘Pakistan can take a big share in this market.’ By the time a domestic industry emerges, his ball park estimate, could be a massive understatement. More importantly, there’s more at stake than export earnings.

The US alone is expected to grow into a $25 billion market for cannabidiol (CBD) within the next two years. It is one of two active ingredients of cannabis and has been believed to have medicinal use for thousands of years. Now the US’s big pharmaceutical companies are pouring billions of dollars into researching these properties. The 10 biggest American drug companies own 192 US patents along with dozens more in other countries. To date, more than 400 clinical trials have been registered with the US Food and Drug Authority. Area under cultivation in the US has also witnessed a three-fold increase after 33 states legalised medicinal marijuana, last year.

These companies are racing to bring CBD-based medication for diseases like epilepsy which afflicts around 1.5 million Pakistanis. At 9.99 per 1,000 of population, the incidence of the disease in the country, is twice as high as the global average. Many of these patients are forced to suffer without access to adequate treatment; only two percent of patients in rural areas and a quarter of the patients in urban areas have access to anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs).

Up to two percent of the population suffers from schizophrenia; that’s nearly four million people. As is often the case with mental disorders, there is little awareness or action. That’s a public health risk because left untreated, schizophrenia can become a debilitating condition. More than 100,000 Pakistanis are diagnosed with cancer each year and the incidence of the disease is rising. Many who survive the disease, are left to live with chronic pain; others succumb to it. These and other conditions like multiple sclerosis, arthritis, glaucoma and nerve pain have all been found to be treatable with cannabidiol.

China, the world’s top grower, had focused primarily on producing textile fibers by leveraging an abundance of spinning mills and cheap labour in the country. This segment of its industry is expected to grow by 15 per annum through 2027 due to rising demand for hemp oil and fibers in products such as paints, inks, and solvents. Yet the Mainland is not oblivious to the natural substance’s medicinal properties, so in 2010 it eased restrictions on other uses. Colombia, Ecuador and Turkey are among other countries that have introduced legislation to kick start hemp production. Following the federal government’s decision, the baton is now with the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR). They should move fast; it could mean the world for millions of people suffering through pain.

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