The Status of Legal Cannabis in Asia

With a history of strict anti-drug policies and a knack for unpredictability, the largest continent on earth could soon be the new scenario for the next wave of cannabis legalization.

This is the place where it all started. Although there’s no consensus between botanists as to where exactly the first cannabis strain originated, all theories point towards somewhere between Central, East and South Asia.

Whether the first sprouts of cannabis first saw the sunlight on the foothills of the Himalayas, along the banks of the Yangtze River, or somewhere in the Caucasus, it’s unanimously accepted that the first humans to use the plant were Asian, which makes it interesting to learn that today, the continent is somewhat left behind on legalization policies when compared to its western buddies.

A Brief History of Cannabis in Asia

The Chinese people pioneered in human-cannabis relations. Their territory is the first to indicate a use of the plant, as rope imprints on ancient pottery, dating back to more than 12,000 years ago.

Evidence also indicates that Chinese emperor Shen Nung (a noted physician of the ancient world) was the first to document the plant’s medical properties over 4,700 years ago.

The Vedas, ancient texts of Hinduism, speak of cannabis as a sacred plant of the Hindu people, in writings that were compiled at least 3,400 years ago. The plant, taken in the form of a hot drink called bhang became popular on the Indian subcontinent, and its presence can still be found there to this day. The strong commercial ties between Indian kingdoms and the Persian empire brought the plant to the middle-east, where it was smoked and eaten in the form of Hashish, achieving strong popularity around the middle ages, and finding its presence in classical Sufi poetry.

Entering the 19th and 20th centuries, influenced sometimes by western powers, others by regional legislation, most of Asia’s nations added cannabis to their list of banned substances.

However, some of Asia’s most advanced nations are already taking the lead in the subject, jumping on the western world’s bandwagon.

Israel

Perceived by many as Asia’s most “European” nation, the small middle-eastern country has been a global leader of medical cannabis innovation, research, health-care and technology for the past three decades.

Israel legalized medical cannabis as a prescription medication in 1994, and today, more than 30,000 patients are periodically provided with prescriptions, which makes it one nation with the highest rates of legal consumers per capita, when considering that the country has a population of only than 8,7 million.

The 2018 European Cannabis Report released by Prohibition Partners, states that “The country is currently growing significantly more cannabis than its medical market can sustain”, which makes for great export opportunities that the Israeli government is not waiting to exploit. A bill soon to be approved, will allow Israel to become the newest member of the international club of cannabis exporters.

South Korea

The Republic of Korea recently made headlines as it warned its citizens living in Canada that partaking in the use of cannabis outside of Korea was still illegal for them. The message was especially aimed at the 23,000 South-Korean exchange student currently living in Canada, as well as everyone thinking about paying a visit to the country.

However harsh Korea’s policies might by regarding recreational use, the country is dialing it down when it comes to medical, as it very recently announced amending their Narcotics Control Act, making medical cannabis legal throughout the country. Nonetheless, the new legislation is quite restrictive, as it only allows for hemp-based CBD, requires a doctor’s recommendation and special approval by the Korea Orphan Drug Center, the institution that handles all rare medications.

Thailand

The 60s saw the first illegal imports of Thai marijuana into the US. With products happily welcomed as the “Cuban cigar of Cannabis”, during the 1980s, the “land of smiles” became one of the world’s top cannabis producers for the international black market. But, after implementing tough anti-drug campaigns, in strong alliance with the “war-on-drugs”, Thai weed became pushed into the background. In 1934, charges for possession in Thailand could not exceed 1 year of prison. After the US government got involved in the 80s, new laws emerged, and current possession charges could land felons a nice 15 year-long visit to a Thai jail-house.

That’s why it’s so surprising to learn that Thailand could soon become the second nation in the Far East to allow some form of legalized cannabis for their citizens. This May, an amendment to the country’s drug law was passed, allowing for the research of medical marijuana in humans.

A private company called the Thai Cannabis Corporation has already been granted permission to cultivate 5,000 hectares of cannabis in order to develop cost-effective growth models and study the possible applications of CBD.

A history of quality production techniques, crossed with perfect geography for cultivation, could re-establish Thailand as one of the world’s cannabis powers, this time, through legal means.

Malaysia

recent controversy triggered by the death sentence of a 29-year-old Malaysian citizen for producing and selling CBD oil prompted a necessary revision of the country’s drug laws by the Cabinet members.

Although public outrage started a domino effect that could soon change the Southeast Asian country’s legislation, actual legalization may still be far ahead. The particular problem Malaysia is facing now is how to come up with an effective way to differentiate cannabis from other psychoactive drugs, which at the moment, lay inside the same bag of capital punishment. Although hard developments are still to occur, the Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources Xavier Jayakumar recently stated in an interview with Bloomberg, that he’s doing everything in his power to open the country to legal cannabis.

China

Although the Far East giant still punishes cannabis consumption and possession without mercy, there’s some indication of its interest in entering the international weed game. After Canada went legal on Oct. 17th, China joined the group of Asian countries warning their citizens not to use the drug even on Canadian ground. Chinese government officials also held Canada responsible as the main producer and exporter of illegal cannabis into China.

However, what the Chinese government isn’t bragging about, is that their country stands for 50% of the entire worldwide cannabis production. Composed mainly of hemp cultivated for textile production, the Chinese hemp fields take up huge portions of the Heilongjiang and Yunnan provinces.

China is also taking a quiet lead-in cannabis research and innovation. Of the 606 cannabis related patents worldwide, 309 belong to Chinese companies. What the Chinese government plans to do with this capital is yet to be discovered, but based on the country’s recent tendency to ingeniously capitalize on international commerce opportunities, it wouldn’t be a surprise to soon learn of a new move by the Chinese cannabis industry.

Although some Asian countries, like India, have ancient cannabis traditions that are still widely spread amongst locals, and even tolerated by law-enforcers, there still has been no news of official announcements regarding legalization. Other countries, like Afghanistan, hold the title for the world’s biggest exporter of illegal hash, yet keep strict anti-marijuana laws on paper. Singapore recently started a genetics research program to try and identify the genes responsible for producing CBD in the cannabis plant, in order to create synthetic cannabinoids for medicinal use. Nonetheless, possession and consumption of natural cannabis can result in 10 years of imprisonment in the small city-state.

Since most of the news treated on this article happened within last year, we can expect a large flow of new cannabis-related events to occur before long in the Asian continent.

Ponieman, ByNatan. “The Status of Legal Cannabis in Asia.” Green Rush Daily, 21 Dec. 2018, greenrushdaily.com/politics/legalization/the-status-of-legal-cannabis-in-asia/.

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