This is a big year for cannabis in Asia. While Asian countries are nothing like Canada, the fact that these very conservative countries are either taking or considering steps to decriminalize medical cannabis is a big step forward.
Needless to say, cannabis reforms are gaining ground in the continent, particularly in the Southeast and East Asian regions. Very recently, South Korea and Thailand have legalized medical cannabis, and it might just be a matter of time before other conservative Asian countries follow suit.
South Korea surprises everyone
South Korea took everyone by surprise when it legalized medical cannabis in late November 2018. The very conservative nation became the first in East Asia and the second in Asia to do so.
Specifically, South Korea’s National Assembly amended the Narcotics Control Act in order to allow non-hallucinogenic dosages of medical marijuana. It is the Narcotics Control Act that strictly prohibited the sale and purchase of the drug.
The new legislation, however, has made sure that access to medical pot will be very limited. For one, patients will need to obtain a recommendation from a licensed doctor. They will then need the approval of the Korea Orphan Drug Center, the organization responsible for dispensing rare and specialized medicines.
Once patients have received both approvals, they would be allowed to buy hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) products or other products containing the non-psychoactive components of cannabis. This means that products containing the high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) will not be allowed.
In other words, only products that are rich in CBD will be prescribed. CBD is best known for its perceived therapeutic benefits.
Not a total surprise
While many found South Korea’s new cannabis law surprising, the move did not totally come from out of the blue. There have already been signs suggesting that the country was on its way to leading a green revolution on the medical front.
In July, for instance, the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced that doctors can already prescribe a small number of cannabis-based drugs. Among these drugs are Epidiolex and Sativex, both manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals, as well as CEsamet and Marinol. These drugs are used in the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, and HIV/AIDS symptoms.
Why many find it hard to believe
The approval of the proposed cannabis law by the National Assembly is viewed to be a major step for South Korea considering that the country still has some of the most conservative and strict regulations regarding pot.
South Koreans who are caught using the drug for recreational purposes, for instance, risk prosecution even if they are not home and are visiting countries where recreational marijuana is legal, like Canada.
Thailand becomes first in Southeast Asia to legalize medical cannabis
Thailand also legalized medical cannabis before 2018 ended, making it the first in Southeast Asia to lift its ban on the drug. Thailand’s parliament approved the legalization of medical marijuana through a bill that amended the Narcotic Act of 1979.
This happened during the holidays and the National Legislative Assembly said that it is their New Year’s gift for the people of Thailand.
While Thais used cannabis as part of traditional medicine until it was banned in the 1930s, the country has some of the world’s toughest penalties when it comes to drug-related crimes. Actually, the same goes for the rest of Southeast Asia, with some countries having the death penalty for drug offenses.
Government OKs further research
In May, the Thai cabinet approved a draft legislation to allow more research into the effects of medical pot.
A few months later, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization, which is a state enterprise that creates pharmaceutical products, started conducting research and clinical trials with the goal of convincing the military government to study and market cannabis for medicinal purposes and of producing medicines for four medical conditions.
For their research, the GPO made use of samples from cannabis seized by the police. The police usually burns all illegal narcotics it has confiscated every year in June to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
Pursuant to the newly amended legal framework, the possession, production, export, and import of cannabis for use in the treatment of illness, in agriculture, in commerce, in research and development, and in science and industry, are now allowed. It also provides for the creation of a larger narcotics control committee, which is in charge of coming up with cannabis-related regulations.
Thais will now be allowed to carry specified amounts of pot needed for treatment provided that they have obtained a certificate or prescription from medical professionals, like doctors, dentists, and practitioners of alternative, indigenous, and Thai traditional medicine.
The government will also be granting licenses for the production and sale of medical pot. However, this will be strictly controlled.
Mainly for economic reasons?
According to reports, Thailand’s legalization of medical cannabis is driven purely by economic reasons.
The country’s geographic location and consistent tropical climate are ideal for growing cannabis plants. This, along with its successful cannabis cultivation history, gives it an edge over competitors.
What’s more, the move is a huge part of Thailand’s plan to take back its title as the world’s top cannabis exporter in the world in the 1980s. And this is true, because over 20 years ago, the best cannabis strains were indeed from Thailand.
Malaysia shows promise, too
A 2018 drug case in Malaysia appeared to demonstrate a shift in people’s attitudes where cannabis is concerned.
The case pertained to a 29-year-old man who was sentenced to death by the court after he was found guilty of selling cannabis oil to cancer patients. Lukman Mohamad’s death penalty sentence caused a public outcry and caught the attention of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir, who promised to review the government’s cannabis policies.
Goodbye, death penalty
In October, after the cabinet’s review of the country’s drug laws and of Lukman Mohamad’s case, the government announced a reprieve in his sentence. The government also announced that is moving to abolish the death penalty.
While the move is a far cry from legalizing cannabis, which many had hoped for and which the Health Ministry has crushed, international human rights and cannabis advocates view this as a victory.
Drug trafficking in Southeast Asia is often punishable by death and there is either no or very little distinction between hard drugs and cannabis. In fact, the region has one of the world’s highest execution rates. And in countries like Indonesia and Singapore, even minor drug offenses can result to a death sentence.
So, yes, scrapping death penalty is a huge deal.
What about other Asian countries?
Singapore. There are also signs of change in Singapore, which also has a no-nonsense stance when it comes to drug offenses. While the city-state has very strict penalties for drug-related crimes, it has announced a program earlier this year that aims to unlock the therapeutic potential of the chemical compounds in cannabis. It also aims to discover cannabinoid genes to produce sustainable medicinal cannabinoids and cannabis derivatives. This initiative is part of an $18.2-million synthetic biology research and development program.
India. In November, India announced that it is studying the medical uses of cannabis, through the government-run Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine. Scientists at the institute are looking into how they can tap into cannabis in the management and treatment of medical conditions like cancer, epilepsy, and sickle cell anemia. Reportedly, they are currently carrying out clinical trials and are working on a new compound containing both CBD and THC.
Under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985, cannabis is prohibited in India except for medical and scientific research purposes.
The Philippines. Lawmakers in the Philippines are currently discussing a bill that proposes to legalize and regulate medical cannabis.
The House of Representatives Committee on Health already approved and endorsed the bill, which is more commonly known as the Philippine Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act. The bill still has a long way to go, with a second and third reading still coming up, but it looks like a huge number of the very conservative and hugely Catholic Filipinos (The Philippines is the only country we know of that still does not allow divorce!) are on board with the idea.
Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is set to launch its first cannabis plantation for domestic medical use and for exports to the United States. The 100-hectare cannabis farm is expected to produce over 25 tonnes of cannabis annually and would ensure a regular supply of high-quality cannabis for the traditional medicinal market.
Cannabis has been technically legal in Sri Lanka since 1961. But while the government allows the use of marijuana in some Ayurvedic medicines, traditional doctors have been complaining about not being able to obtain good-quality weed for the medicinal preparations. This supply problem has prompted the government to decide to launch the country’s very own cannabis cultivation program.
Things are looking up!
What all of these boil down to is that a number of Asian countries are gearing themselves up for the cannabis revolution that has already taken over Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and even Africa.
Despite the outrageously strict drug policies that many nations in Asia have implemented, they are starting to recognize that cannabis has medicinal benefits and that many people really do need it.
Many of them, like Thailand, is going back to the basics. They are starting to acknowledge that cannabis was the miracle drug of the past and it will be the miracle drug of the future. Because, really, when they come to think of it, medicinal cannabis is a significant part of their culture and history.