ISLAMABAD: Pakistan plans to import a specific variety of cannabis seeds to begin research on its industrial and medical use to tap into the $25 billion cannabidiol (CBD) market, the science and technology minister said on Wednesday, a day after the federal cabinet approved the country’s first license for non-psychoactive hemp.

The hemp project is part of the Science Ministry’s larger initiative on precision agriculture, in which niche projects focused on non-traditional agriculture are under development. One of them, for industrial and medical use of hemp, was approved by the government on Tuesday. Hemp is used to extract cannabidiol (CBD) that is widely used for therapeutic purposes, reported foreign media.

“CBD compound plays an important role in therapeutical medicine and after 2016 a breakthrough research was unveiled which prompted China to set up a cannabis research department and is now cultivating hemp on 40,000 acres, and Canada is cultivating it on 100,000 acres,” Science Minister Fawad Chaudhry told reporters during a press briefing in Islamabad.

Flanked by three specialists heading the hemp project, he clarified that the plant Pakistan plans to grow contains legal levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — around 0.3 percent or below. At higher levels, THC is intoxicating and illegal in much of the world.

The minister said that hemp seeds are used for producing oil, leaves for developing medication, while stems are used for fibers which are gradually replacing cotton in the textile industry. “Worldwide this fiber is replacing cotton. Clothes, bags, and other textile products are being made using this plant’s fiber. This is a $25 billion market and Pakistan can take a big share in this market,” Chaudhry said.

“This is under government control, so further research can be done and adequate safeguards through ministry of narcotics can be placed,” Chaudhry said but conceded that for expanding production, the private sector will be involved in future. He expects the hemp market to generate $1 billion in revenue for Pakistan in next three years, when research, cultivation, production, and exports for medical and industrial purposes are underway. The ministry has scouted areas in the Potohar region in northern Punjab, which is considered adequate for growing hemp due its climate. The country’s top biotechnologists are onboard to spearhead the project.

Validation and certification of hemp will be performed by the globally recognised International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS). “We have two options. One is to grow the plant, produce oil and export it, or the other option is that we take the oil and create a valuable product,” ICCBS director Dr Iqbal Chaudhry said. “To achieve the objective of generating $1 billion from this, we need to create premium products from the extracted oil for medicines but also for cosmetics, soaps and shampoos.”