India’s relationship with cannabis is complicated. The marijuana plant has a deeply rooted history in the country and is widely considered medicinal, with mentions in ancient scriptures and Ayurvedic texts. Bhang, a product made from the leaves of the cannabis plant, is legally sold in certain parts of the country, through shops selling everything from bhang milkshakes to cookies, dotting the streets in zones where they are legal.
However, while some cannabis components like hemp (a kind of cannabis used for industrial purposes) and cannabidiol (CBD) have been cleared for legal use, the recreational use of cannabis remains outlawed and taboo, with increasing crackdowns and rampant media shaming of users, creating an atmosphere of hostility.
Now, nestled on the banks of the river Parvati in Kasol, a hamlet in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, a cafe is on a mission to normalise cannabis culture.
Off Limits, India’s first hemp cafe, is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Omair Alam and Mayank Gupta, who are trying to create a hemp ecosystem that pushes for the use of the cannabis plant that grows abundantly in India, highlighting its potential in boosting the economy and harnessing the environment.
“By introducing hemp infusions into our coffee and food, we are trying to educate people about its many benefits, and normalise the culture so it gains more social acceptance,” Alam, who also runs a cannabis legalisation advocacy platform called The Dankville, told VICE.
The duo’s budding venture operates on a simple age-old philosophy: The best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. Their menu features familiar food but with an option of adding hemp oil to the dishes. The cafe also uses hemp-roasted coffee seeds especially created at a unit in Delhi. Its menu features hemp-infused dishes including pastas, burgers, pizzas, pancakes and waffles, while some dishes on the menu like omelettes and sandwiches can also be served with a side of hemp seed oil.
Set against the stunning vistas of hilly Kasol, Alam and Gupta’s venture is a place to unwind, tuck into some hearty food, and gain awareness of the health benefits of hemp as a so-called superfood. “Hemp adds a nutty flavour to food but is quite bland otherwise,” Alam said. “We also have a person educating our customers about how hemp can reduce inflammation, improve heart health, is a source of protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as details on how many grams you should be consuming in a day.”
The idea is that putting a component of cannabis on people’s plates and letting them know how it can be beneficial to their health could help promote a positive association around the persecuted plant.
The hemp is legally obtained from licensed growers in the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Delhi, from cannabis research and development facilities that the government has sanctioned for industrial use.
“Thanks to a new notification by the Food Safety and Security Authority of India (FSSAI) in November 2021 that classified hemp as a superfood, we were able to obtain a licence to legally sell hemp-infused products,” explained Gupta. To ensure their cafe could operate within the legal framework, the entrepreneurs also had to obtain a licence from AYUSH, a government ministry in charge of researching alternative medicines, which has legally permitted use of cannabis extracts for medicinal purposes.
“Since we’re based in Kasol (where cannabis grows in the wild and is generally socially accepted), we have a lot of college kids who come into the cafe expecting to get high,” said Gupta. “They’ll ask us things like ‘Maal milega?’ (Can we score some weed?) or assume we’re making hash brownies. We’ve also had customers who eat our hemp-infusions and mentally feel high because of the placebo effect.”
The cafe sees about 100 customers a day, many of whom are families who come in with kids. “We promote hemp, coffee and wholesome food. We have families and also stoner couples who come for the good vibes. We even have older customers who have been smoking up for decades, even before cannabis was made illegal in India, and are now learning about it in this form.”
However, Gupta and Alam point out, their mission is focused more on creating a wellness experience using cannabis, with an aim to morph into India’s first hemp ecosystem that offers everything, from coffee and clothes to spa products. Their cafe also offers rooms for people to stay the night, and regularly hosts hemp-related events.
“We did an event called Wake, Bake and Meditate, where we invited around 20 people, did meditation, yoga and had conversations around cannabis and mental health,” said Alam. “We want to use our space to do more such events and promote cannabis culture in this way, rather than people simply looking at it as smoking up to get high.”