A joint research project between the National Biodiversity Centre (NBC) and a Dutch company is underway to determine the chemical and genetic diversity of cannabis and to explore possible medicinal value of the plant species found in Bhutan.

Initiated in March last year, the main objective of the research is to document physical characteristics (phenotypic), chemical and genetic diversity of cannabis found in Bhutan.

Preliminary discussions for the project had begun as early as 2015.

Officials from NBC in Serbithang, Thimphu said that the research was to scientifically analyse the medicinal potential of Bhutanese cannabis in the wake of growing interest in the value of cannabis as a medicinal drug.

“It was also intended to build national capacity in understanding the science and potential application of medicinal cannabis,” said an official. “It was also intended to generate scientific information to inform policy and decision-making.”

Chemical analysis from the initial study has been completed. The Dutch partners are currently analysing the compounds such as cannabinoids/terpenes found in the plant.

According to NBC, after the full report from the initial study, the next course of action for the research would be decided.

Three river basins of Punatsangchhu, Wangchhu and Amochhu, including nine different locations with cannabis population of varying altitudes were identified for the sample collection. Officials said that the areas were identified based on a collection protocol developed by the research collaborators.

Some of the early results indicated that Bhutanese cannabis plants had unique characteristics, which required further validation for conservation and exploration for medicinal benefits.

The collected samples are processed at the bio-prospecting laboratory at NBC. The processed samples are transferred to the Netherlands for further analysis.

“We have learnt to identify male and female plants, sample collection and processing methods, including basic analysis and developing medical cannabis oil among others,” said an NBC official.

The social stigma associated with the controlled substance, complicated processes, limited budget and national capacities and shrinking research germplasm (living genetic resources such as seeds or tissues) due to rapid eradication of cannabis are some of the key challenges faced by the team.

“Although the Bhutanese law restricts commercial production and its utilisation, it also gives a small window for research,” said an official.

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”.

NBC officials said that the research would not involve mass cultivation of the plant. “Our research is on the cannabis from the wild population,” said an official. “In fact what we understand is that every cannabis plant has its own speciality and can differ in their chemical content and physical nature. So it is very important to protect our cannabis germplasm until we can fully analyse and understand our plants and their medicinal value, if any.”

NBC is in the process of signing an Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement with the collaborators involved.

The Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency, Drug Regulatory Authority, health ministry, Menjong Sorig Pharmaceutical Corporation Ltd. and Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority, among others, are some of the consulting stakeholders in the research.

Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that oil extraction plants would be considered if Bhutanese cannabis contained potential medicinal value.

Younten Tshedup