… ready for export, says proprietor 

Dechen Dolkar

Highly secured with barbed wires and under the surveillance of 360-degree security cameras is a four-acre marijuana plantation at Chumpathang, between Norbugang and Ugyentse gewogs in Samtse. 

Owned by Bhutan Nutraceutical, a private company, the venture is to carry out research and development of cannabis with approval from the Cabinet for research and development of cannabis products.

While commercial production and utilisation of cannabis is illegal, the Cabinet has directed the erstwhile Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA) to draft rules and regulations in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and submit to the board as per section of the Narcotic Drugs, psychotropics substances abuse act of Bhutan 2015.

On May 13, 2021, the erstwhile BNCA approved Bhutan Nutraceuticals request to conduct research and development of cannabis products as per section 18 of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substance and Substance abuse act 2018. However, the approval did not include marketing and mass production of cannabis. 

According to section 18 of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse (Amendment) Act 2018, “For the purpose of medical or scientific research, teaching or forensic works the competent authority may without requesting the license referred under section 6 of this act authorise such designated individual, institution or agency to produce,manufacture, acquire, import, use or hold plants, substances and preparations listed in schedules I, II, III, IV and V of this act in quantities not exceeding those strictly required for the intended purpose”.

Bhutan Nutraceuticals, in a letter to the erstwhile BNCA, stated that the products could include cosmetics, medicines, active pharmaceutical ingredients, and others. “Through research and development, we will be able to identify products that are scientifically valid, economically viable and socially beneficial,” it stated. “Once we have identified such a product, we will seek further approval for the commercialisation of the product to your authority.”

Ugyentse Gup Karna Bdr Thakuri said that his office gave initial clearance for the plantation of cannabis in the gewog. The gup said that the company has consulted with the people. Bhutan Nutraceutical bought five acres of land from the people paying Nu 9,000 to Nu 12,000 per decimal in 2019 and 2020.

The gup said that during the consultation, the company presented that the cannabis product will be exported to a third country. The plantation started in 2021 with a promise to employ local people.

For research purpose

The Director of Bhutan Nutraceuticals, Sangay Tenzin said that the cultivation of cannabis was for research purposes. The company, he said,  has around 40 acres of land for cannabis cultivation and plans to start a factory for cannabis products.

 He said that they have collected cannabis seeds from 19 dzongkhags after informing the police and cultivated them in trails on the farm.  “We are examining different strains of the compound in cannabis from different locations, “he said.

Last August, the company submitted a sample of cannabis products to the erstwhile BNCA. The office received prototype samples of cannabis products. However, officials from the Bhutan Food and Drug Authority (former BNCA) said that they asked the company for clinical trials before the technical team approved the products for medicinal uses.

An official from the authority said that they cannot allow the products to be exported or for medical usage unless clinical tests are done and certified by the concerned authority.

However, the Director of Bhutan Nutraceutical, argued that their sample products are widely used in the world as medicines and they have also not received any letter to do a clinical trial from the food and drug authority.

He said that they have also sent a sample to the National Biodiversity Center to test Cannabidiol (CBD) content, a compound found in marijuana, and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive cannabinoid extracted from cannabis plant,  content in March, this year and tested that it can be used as medicinal.

“We are waiting for the final approval to export the cannabis product which is extracted as oil and is medicinal,” the director said.

Meanwhile, the cabinet had asked the Ministry of Health to change the schedule of cannabis for medicinal uses from schedule l to schedule lV in the Narcotic Drugs, psychotropic Substances, and Substance Abuse Act of Bhutan 2015.

Schedule l of the Act restricts plantation, utilisation and export of narcotic drugs with no medicinal value and Schedule lV allows the export, with the approval of the government, of psychotropic substances with medicinal value.