Asia has the toughest penalties against drug use and trafficking but the legal landscape is shifting in several countries where cannabis, or marijuana, once deemed ruinous to young lives, is emerging as a lucrative industry.

In Thailand, where trafficking marijuana is illegal, parliament has set in motion plans to legalise the drug for medical use. On November 9, the national legislative assembly filed a proposal to re-classify marijuana as a legal drug and allow its regulated sale and possession. Marijuana may become available for licensed usage before the end of the year, according to The Washington Post.

This would position the Southeast Asian country as the epicentre of the burgeoning industry and advocates claim Thailand’s legal marijuana market could make US$5 billion by 2024.

Malaysia, which recently scrapped the death penalty for all crimes including drug trafficking, has begun informal cabinet discussions on legalising medical marijuana, racing alongside Thailand to become the first Asian country to allow the drug.

The “green gold rush” has begun and Asian nations are eager to share in the windfall.

The changing landscape

There are a number of varieties of cannabis – hemp is one, marijuana is another – and the plant’s stems can be used for fabric, its leaves for smoking and seeds for snacks, oil and drinks. The difference between the two is the amount of the psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp contains only trace amounts but both contain cannabidiol (CBD), which has been used to treat conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea is considering amending its laws so drugs infused with CBD can be imported. In Japan, cannabis use is illegal but research into cannabinoids is being undertaken and about 40 farmers have been given licences to grow plants. In Sri Lanka, the health minister announced in April that cultivation of medical cannabis would begin later this year.

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According to Martin Jelsma, director of the drug policy programme at Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based think tank, Nepal, Bhutan and India may also be open to legalising medical cannabis. Even China could be tempted to pursue a policy of liberalisation: production, trade and consumption of cannabis are illegal but authorities have supported limited production in Heilongjiang and Yunnan provinces for commercial purposes, and funded scientists to study the plant’s military uses.

“You see countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan also becoming interested in looking at medical cannabis in part because they see how much money the rest of the world’s companies and countries are getting out of it,” Jelsma said. “Of course it’s more difficult to monitor China – [but there may be] interest in medical cannabis as they already have a huge hemp industry.”

The emerging market in Asia is being fuelled by promises of economic benefits and the increasing acceptance – globally and regionally – of legalisation over criminalisation.

Most of them are going to fall all over themselves to legalise as fast as they possibly can
Jim Plamondon, Thai Cannabis Corporation

The medical marijuana market is projected to grow to US$55.8 billion by 2025, according to business consultants at Grandview Research, constituting about one-third of the overall legal marijuana market, projected to be worth US$146.4 billion by the same year.

Worldwide, Peru, Chile, Britain and 31 of 50 American states are already tapping into the industry – in the US, legal cannabis is providing some states with a tax windfall.

In October, Canada became the second nation in the world – after Uruguay – to fully legalise the recreational use and purchase of cannabis and related products. The Canadian marijuana industry could generate as much as C$6.5 billion (US$4.9 billion) in sales by 2020, according to government projections.

The history

In Asia, marijuana, a Latin American term, is also known as “ganja”, from an old Sanskrit word originating in India. It has a long history in the region and was used in Hindu traditions in India before arriving in Thailand.

Jim Plamondon of Chiang Mai-based Thai Cannabis Corporation, which hopes to become the country’s first legal cannabis grower, highlighted the traditional use of cannabis as a painkiller.

“Cannabis has been a part of a collection of medicinal herbs Thais have used for [centuries],” he said. “It was mainly a drug for women because they were involved in transplanting rice, which was back-breaking work. They would eat chicken and rice laced with cannabis and get back to work.”

But a turning point came in 1961 when cannabis was classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, denoting it as one of the most addictive substances along with opium, cocaine and heroin.

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“The global prohibition of cannabis was imposed on Southeast Asia, and was not fully supported by many nations [at the time],” Jelsma said. “At the time of the 1961 convention when decolonisation was taking place, these countries were rapidly becoming independent and they tried to protect local cultures, but they had much less power than the colonial powers,” he said, adding that the US played a central role in imposing sweeping prohibitions on cannabis.

According to Plamondon, the ban on cannabis was a side effect of making opium illegal.

From 1839-1842, the world watched as China’s Qing dynasty fell apart, devastated by the effects of the opium wars, when it was forced to open its trade routes to the British in return for the drug. As many as 12 million Chinese became addicted to the substance, now banned.

Plamondon said that cannabis’ medicinal properties were not well-known until recently in the West, where there has been growing acceptance of the drug and scientific studies illuminating the benefits.

The sceptics

In Thailand, cannabis is currently listed as a Class-5 narcotic.

This means possession, cultivation and growing can be punished with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

But if medical cannabis becomes legal, growers could apply for licences to cultivate marijuana crops.

According to Jelsma, the Thai plans are ambitious, with about 5,000 hectares being considered for cultivation. Malaysia may move more slowly although Jelsma pointed to the recent abolition of the death penalty as heralding a less stringent approach.

In a recent survey of 1,012 Malaysians by online pollster YouGov, 40 per cent of respondents supported the legalisation of medical marijuana and 57 per cent believed cannabis had medicinal value.

Support for liberalisation is not unanimous, though.

China, South Korea and Japan last month warned citizens visiting Canada to avoid cannabis.

Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau reiterated its tough stance on the recreational use of cannabis – possession or consumption can result in a S$20,000 fine (US$14,500), caning or even a 10-year prison sentence. The death penalty remains in effect for trafficking more than 500 grams. Any citizens or permanent residents found to have “abused controlled drugs overseas” would be treated as though they had done so in Singapore, it said.

“A literature review conducted by the Institute of Mental Health affirmed the addictive and harmful nature of cannabis, and that it damages the brain,” the bureau said. “There is scant evidence of the safety and efficacy of long-term cannabis use. These findings corroborate our position that cannabis should remain an illicit drug.”

Still, in typically pragmatic fashion, the country has allowed research on synthetic elements of the cannabis plant since the start of this year – the National Research Foundation is studying the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids to promote the biotech industry, while the National University of Singapore is developing synthetic CBD for prescription medicine and specialised treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, among other illnesses. It has also allowed an investment holding company focused on cannabis to be headquartered in the country.

The fallout

Asian nations may well be moving towards legalisation of cannabis as the economic incentives become evermore attractive. But they may yet need to contend with conservative social attitudes towards recreational use of cannabis and the lack of consensus among scientists on the benefits of using it medically.

The World Health Organisation on its website maintains that cannabis use has acute and chronic health effects, including impairing cognitive development and psychomotor performance, even as it acknowledges studies that have showed the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids.

According to Luke Chu, an economist specialising in health and public policy at Victoria University of Wellington, governments will need to address supply side issues as well as the unforeseen consequences.

“To set up a legal framework can take quite a long time,” he said. “As marijuana is likely less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes, the government can apply the existing regulations on alcohol and cigarettes to marijuana.

They are moving away from the prohibitive approach and will start to regulate cannabis for medicinal and industry purposes
Martin Jelsma, Transnational Institute

“Some associated addiction and risky behaviours like drugged driving might increase to some degree – which doesn’t seem to be the case for marijuana in the US though. The government may want to review the existing health system and support system to do a ‘stress test’. For example, if there will be a 1 per cent increase in marijuana addicts, can the health system take care of that?”

Ultimately, the economic incentives of legalisation may outweigh any concerns about unforeseen consequences.

“Asia is coming late to the legalisation trend going strong in North America … because of the cannabis tradition in the region, they are moving away from the prohibitive approach and will start to regulate cannabis for medicinal and industry purposes,” Jelsma said.

According to Plamondon: “It’s a return to tradition – which is a much easier argument to sell to your people than doing a radical new thing. Second is the money.

“Most of them are going to fall all over themselves to legalise as fast as they possibly can.”