As the world wakes up to the health benefits and commercial potential of legalised cannabis, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea are racing to become the first East Asian nation to legalise its medical use.
The drug was used as a painkiller throughout the region for centuries until it was stamped out by the western imperialist powers in the 1960s. Attempts to reintroduce the herb to the region can, therefore, be seen as a reversion to tradition, rather than a step into the unknown.
Thailand is moving closer to legalising medical marijuana as a bill is being drafted by the military-controlled parliament.
The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved the bill last month with 145 votes in favour and one abstention.
NLA member Somchai Swangkarn said a vetting committee on the bill was established and draft legislation could be expected within a month. Marijuana may become available for licensed use before the end of December, according to the Washington Post.
Jim Plamondon of the Thai Cannabis Corporation in Chiang Mai praised the drugs’ traditional use as a painkiller.
He said: “Cannabis has been a part of a collection of medicinal herbs Thais have used for [centuries]. 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.”
There has been controversy that cannabis-related patent applications submitted to the Intellectual Property Department came from foreign firms, leading to fears that overseas corporations may monopolise the market.
Advocates claim a legal Thai marijuana market could be worth US$5 billion by 2024 and there is already a desire to keep any profits within the kingdom.
“Government agencies should find ways to ensure that foreigners will not keep Thais away from the benefits of marijuana and kratom [a leaf-based stimulant],” Somchai said.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said last month that he would use his near-dictatorial powers to ensure Thai firms profited from the legislation.
Cannabinoids can help with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, loss of appetite and to alleviate the effects of chemotherapy.
Malaysia, which only recently scrapped the death penalty for all drug-trafficking crimes, has begun cabinet discussions on legalising medical marijuana.
In Japan, cannabis use is illegal but research into cannabinoids is being undertaken with about 40 farmers given licences to grow plants. In Sri Lanka, the health minister announced in April that cultivation of medical cannabis would begin during 2018.
Even China might relax its grip, with the authorities supporting limited production in Heilongjiang and Yunnan provinces for commercial purposes and funding scientists to study the plant’s, wait for it, military uses.
China already has a huge hemp industry.
The medical cannabis market will be worth an estimated US$55.8 billion by 2025 of a legal global weed market worth around US$146.4 billion, according to the consultancy Grandview Research.
Peru, Chile, the UK and 31 of the 50 US states are already profiting from the industry with some US states gaining a tax windfall.
In 1961 cannabis was classified as a schedule 1 drug under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, denoting it as addictive as opium, cocaine and heroin.
The US played a central role in imposing global prohibitions on cannabis.
South Korea is also currently hoping to become the first East Asian state to introduce medicinal cannabis.
While the Thai junta has wrestled with the threat of foreign multinationals, Seoul has simply amended its Management of Narcotic Drugs Act, legalising medicinal cannabis.
Permits have not been issued yet and medics will consider applications from patients suffering from extreme forms of conditions like epilepsy. The news surprised many in the conservative country with strict anti-cannabis laws.
Possession can lead to up to five years in jail and pop stars have been incarcerated for smoking marijuana.
Korea has made a distinction between hallucinogenic cannabis, containing the intoxicating THC, and derivatives like CBD, which can ease pain without affecting the workings of the brain.
Thailand’s Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) is researching marijuana-based medicines. The police handed over 100kg of confiscated cannabis to the agency in October for research.
However, seized drugs have been deemed unfit for medical use as they can carry traces of pesticides and metals like lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium, according to the Medical Science Department (MSD).
A lot of Thai street cannabis contains chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide, according to the authorities.
Chlorpyrifos can cause nausea, muscle cramps and even respiratory failure.
“Cannabis plants, especially female ones, contain a lot of useful cannabinoids, but they attract lots of insects, so farmers rely on pesticides. However, if we want to grow it for medical use, we must not use these chemicals,” said Nuntakan Suwanpidokkul, director of GPO’s research institute.
In a few years, maybe Asean will look back on the decades when marijuana was outlawed as a historical aberration, when a valuable resource was unfairly stigmatised.
Picture credit: LIbreshot