Pakistan has unveiled plans to allow the industrial production of hemp, spurring hopes farmers and businesses in the conservative Islamic country will be able to tap into the lucrative global cannabis market.
The move comes as Prime Minister Imran Khan's government struggles to boost the country's foreign exchange coffers that have been drained by a struggling economy, fiscal deficits and inflation.
"This hemp market could provide Pakistan with some $1 billion in the next three years and we are in a process of making a full-fledged plan for this purpose," science and technology minister Fawad Chaudhry told reporters Wednesday.
Hemp is a type of cannabis plant containing cannabidiol (CBD) which advocates say has numerous medicinal and relaxing properties.
It does not contain signficant quantities of high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Chaudhry said the industrial hemp market was worth some $25 billion globally and several countries were relaxing laws targeting cannabis-based products such as CBD oils.
Initially, the government will control hemp production, Chaudry said, but private businesses and farmers will be allowed to enter the market at a later date.
He added that with cotton production in Pakistan declining due to various factors, hemp provided farmers with a viable alternative.
In conservative Pakistan, where the consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden for Muslims, many people are surprisingly open to using cannabis, with the spongy, black hash made from marijuana grown in the country's tribal belt and neighbouring Afghanistan the preferred variant of the drug.
Across the subcontinent people have been cultivating cannabis and smoking hash for centuries.
The plant predates the arrival of Islam in the region, with reference to cannabis appearing in the sacred Hindu Atharva Veda text describing its medicinal and ritual uses.
Hemp grows almost as a weed in parts of Pakistan -- including in great abundance in the capital, where huge bushes can be seen sprouting at traffic roundabouts.