Priya Mishra is India’s first female cannabis activist and founder of Hempvati, an educational platform that brings awareness to the benefits of cannabis and helps destigmatize it around the country. She uses her expertise to promote the medicinal value and health benefits of weed, under controlled & supervised usage.
In this edition of Amplify, let’s learn more about Priya’s work of providing education and destigmatization around cannabis in India while empowering herself through this journey.
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jessika Lagarde.
WOOP: Can you please share with us a little bit about your background and what led you to do this type of advocacy work?
Priya: Sure. First of all, thank you so much, Namaste for giving me this opportunity. My name is Priya Mishra and I'm better known as Hempvati, which means "the one with the knowledge of hemp or cannabis". I have been an activist and an educator in India and in Asia in countries like Nepal, which is my second home, and Sri Lanka.
Luckily now we have in India six states allowing legal, medical, and industrial cultivation, allowing scientists to have an upper hand, and a lot more. And I've just played the part of being a connector or a catalyst in all of this.
WOOP: How did you first learn about cannabis?
Priya: I think my first joint was when I was a 17-year-old and when I was 20, I had a boyfriend who had this smoking habit and I'm very grateful to him.
But having that said, it was just one time. And then I got tuberculosis and got introduced to the medical side of it. The medicine didn't help me that much to the point where they just sealed my entire condition. So it was not getting better, but it was not getting worse also. But I was already a third-stage patient so that meant I was in a lot of pain.
And then medical cannabis came to my rescue. After a couple of days without sleep, a friend of mine just asked me to smoke it and then after I could relax, slept like a baby. That was five and a half, six years back now. I'm all healthy now. I stopped my medicines within a week.
I did then a lot of research, I looked up a lot of articles, videos of patients who were sharing their stories. Doctors were publishing their material, but none of this was there in the mainstream.
That was six years back. Today in 2021, Hempvati is a force-led movement in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. We have collaborated with over five brands, which have a private cultivation B. They also have farmers who have got the license to cultivate and create products.
We educate people from the grassroots levels, which are the farmers, and now we also assist with the incubation of hemp products and hemp services in India with the institutes like Deli Technical University. So things have been on the rise. I'm super happy, it's progress.
WOOP: We would love to know a little bit more about this educational work that you do.
Priya: So I have published two books a couple of years back and this was nothing more than a "Cannabis and Hemp for Dummies", especially written like that for the Eastern mind, the Indian mind, in a language that they would understand. With cultural background stories that they could connect to their ancestors, instead of associating it with something that was coming from the West.
So this way they were getting an idea that cannabis is a very big thing. So I coordinated for them along with that getting, some samples from real museums of our country, for example, they still have pipes available, which our ancestors used to use. So after that, I realized that a lot of people started connecting with me. I got that translated in Hindi and on the other local regional languages.
And I spend at least a week in each district or a village specifically, trying to educate a minimum of 5 to 500 people. Now, that depends on how many of them are open to it, so I keep a minimum number of five people. I pick a sample kit, which usually has hemp seed oil, hemp seeds, daily objects that these people who are not probably even literate can relate to. And then break the ice. Once that is done, it's very easy for them to accept that there is so high technology available for treating or at least helping some diseases with the use of cannabis.
So that's what my education work is. I do this type of aid work via moving around because you can't move villages to one place. And I maintain a place in the Himalayas and I take people on an educational tour over there where people have a cultural and industrial acceptance towards the plant that is also grown on the highways. So they utilize it just like any other plant.
I've been blessed that I get connected with a lot of intellectual people. So a lot of doctors have been very supportive and now we are bringing them together for a workshop. Hopefully, this one would have at least 10 doctors and that's my 2021 target. To take it one notch up and have doctors onboard talking pro-cannabis in the language these populations understand.
WOOP: You are India's first female cannabis activist. What are the barriers and challenges you face by being a woman in this field?
Priya: I'm sure you have gone through very much the same as I have gone throughout here in India, nothing different. You know, to be the only female cannabis activist in the country is backbreaking. And at the same time, it has made me fearless. Because there's no looking back.
It’s crazy the things that people called me already. I mean, I'm an educator, I just explained to you what I do, right? And they don't think before naming me up of a person who is selling drugs. And I am not even selling products. Do you see the irony of that? I could very easily sell cannabis and produce hemp products, but I'm not even doing that just to make sure that these people have a very clear understanding of the difference between an educator and a business owner.
So that is one thing, they label people and look at them in the same light. But as I said, it's just made me fearless because there's nothing worse that can happen. You just come back stronger. And every time this happens, I'm blessed that my family supports me.
WOOP: What are the barriers and challenges you often face until today when it comes to the stigmatization of cannabis? What is the biggest misinformation that people have?
Priya: So the hardest part is that sometimes people don't understand something that is right in front of their eyes. There are a lot of people who like to do activism along with us, but they always back out when they realize that it's a real-time job out here. You have to spend at least a week in a village explaining to them how cannabis works. And if in that village, even if just two people understood, they will spend their entire life explaining it to their village friends.
It becomes a little difficult to manually do everything. What we need over here is a lot more people coming in and doing the work on a grassroots level. Because there is an entire media in India that says that cannabis is bad, it's only drugs.
So it's the unawareness of people that makes it difficult and the perception is so strong. So I hope that in the future we have more people, like yourself and myself, who can just fight with it. These media houses demonize cannabis here. They try every day to bring in a bad story of cannabis so imagine the impact it is making on even our patients.
WOOP: So would you say like that in India in general, people have a more negative view on cannabis in big part because of the media, or is that changing?
Priya: India in the old days had cannabis as a cultural part. And yet this condition has changed because the media and the internet played an important part in showing it in the dark lenses. They showed a criminal smoking a joint, a killer smoking a joint. How does anyone do anything bad after smoking a joint? It's not possible.
But understand that this is what they show in news. This is what they show in movies. This is what they show in TV shows out here in India. And that brings everything down.
WOOP: How do you think cannabis can empower women around the globe?
Priya: I believe cannabis helps us to get connected with our inner divine child and with our inner feminine side. And it helps us enhance what we have. It can be art, it can be talking, it can be brain, it can be anything, it just that it helps enhance it. And it gives confidence back to women.
WOOP: How has cannabis empowered you?
Priya: Cannabis has made me fearless. It made me a better person. I used to be a little, short-tempered, a little more materialistic, a little more shallow. It took me deep down with it. That's what cannabis did. It took me deep down within so much that today I can only stay in nature. I can't stay in city life. I go to my meetings, I'd run back the maximum in a month. I can spend two days in a city and then I'm going my lungs out. We'll be back home.
WOOP: The psychedelic movement is growing nowadays and it's becoming also more normalized. How do you think the psychedelic space can learn from the cannabis movement?
Priya: In India, these movements stand a little far from each other, though you rightly said it is together. Understanding that cannabis is a psychoactive plant that has helped me and so does the mushroom, so does the ayahuasca. So it's different keys, but to the same lock, which is the soul. All these movements that we have, at the end of the day are
to fight for our access to our soul.
I hope that soon India will also have ayahuasca, cacao ceremonies in a manner that can serve a lot of people. And I hope that happens very soon because all of these tools are highly medicinal. They are only helping and making humans better at being human and health-wise as well.
WOOP: Do you think there is a correlation between the current spotlight on cannabis and psychedelics and it becoming more normalized and more people are talking about it and the big changes happening in the world?
Priya: Well to many of the problems that the world is going through, the answer is cannabis. And with more and more people becoming awakened, they are realizing and making that change. So in 2020/2021, this pandemic made them realize that we can make a difference in the world so let's just do it now. I'm talking about the many countries that started legalizing and decriminalizing it.
And I'm hoping that psychedelics will also bring all of us together. I can see totally that cannabis is native of India with cultural background and logical excavations and things like that. I would love that with psychedelics we could travel around the world, to the places where they come from, and have a stamp that I'm going for medical treatment with the psychedelic from that region.
WOOP: What's next? Any exciting new projects coming up for 2021?
Priya: We are going full-fledged with Hempvati Ashram, a place where you learn how to connect with your inner self using medical cannabis and industrial hemp. It will include art, understanding your body, understanding nature. It will include a lot of industrial products as well. So that's one.
The second is that we are still working on our documentary and hopefully this year it will be out and about, and it will be for people to understand what cannabis truly means to India.
And lastly, I hope by the end of the ear we have at least half 50% of the States and union territories legalizing cannabis and hemp products. Currently, there are six states in India, which are legal to cultivate medical cannabis and industrial hemp, and the majority of them allow medical usage of finished products. But I'm hoping in the next year, this will become a little broader and they'll be able to make medicine out there as well.
You can find more information about Hempvati on Instagram and their website. Hempvati is born out of the vision of India's first Female cannabis activist Priya Mishra as an attempt to help the country become greener.