Cannabis in Asia: Division Spreading Across the Region

by | Oct 30, 2018

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

In early November, Hong Kong is set to host the Cannabis Investor Symposium. It’s the first convention of its kind in a locale well known for its stringent laws around buying, selling, and smoking cannabis. The symposium, hosted by CannaTech, The Arcview Group, and URI Capital Management, is set to cover topics around the cannabis world policy, and investment opportunities.

Beyond the keynote speakers scheduled, including “Cannabis and China,” “Market Insights: Australasia,” and “The Cannabis Value Chain,” the most exciting part of the event is to see how it is received.  Considering the Symposium is one of the first significant introductions to the cannabis industry in the region, it remains to be seen if it garners the same kind of exciting in Hong Kong as a similar event would receive in North America.

The economic potential of the cannabis market hasn’t been lost on the political elite in Asia, but it does pose a conundrum. Many Asian countries have some of the harshest laws governing the use of marijuana on the planet, and certain segments of society still feel strongly about its potential for abuse, and consider it detrimental to human health. It is still very early days for cannabis in Asia, but there are already some extreme differences in opinion between some of the key players in the region.

A More Relaxed Approach Coming to Thailand

Hong Kong and China more broadly have thus far avoided any discussions about legalizing marijuana, even if they are set to explore its market potential in the Cannabis Investor Symposium. However, Thailand is making moves towards opening up access to medical marijuana. A shocking move considering the historically severe consequences for drug use in the South East Asian nation. In a country where one marijuana cigarette could land a person in a Thai prison with a lengthy sentence, patients may have access to medical marijuana as early as Spring 2019.

The usefulness of cannabis as medicine and the potential boom from a lucrative cannabis market hasn’t convinced all Asian nations to reevaluate their laws. Countries like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea have remained as staunchly opposed to medical and recreational marijuana as ever before. These countries remain unconvinced about the benefits of introducing it within their borders and have gone so far as to warn their citizens about traveling abroad to find it.

At the end of October 2018, Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) issued a notice advising their citizens of the “scant evidence of the safety and efficacy of long-term cannabis use.” There seems to be little political will within the city-state to change the current. If caught today, one can expect up to a decade behind bars and a fine of up to S$20,000 (roughly $15,000).

South Korea is another Asian nation struggling with the changing legal status of cannabis in other areas of the world. With 286,000 South Korean tourists in Canada in 2017, the South Korean government has made it clear that cannabis tourism will not be an option for their citizens.

In a recent announcement, Yoon Se-jin a lead for the anti-drugs division regional police agency stated, “Weed smokers will be punished according to the Korean law, even if they did so in countries where smoking marijuana is legal. There won't be an exception.” For South Korean citizens, they must follow the South Korean law, even when abroad. It remains to be seen if and how legislatures intend to enforce this law on the 200k travelers returning from Canada each year.

China and Cannabis, An Uncertain Future

China hasn’t made any clear moves towards legalization yet. On the one hand, it has also warned its citizens about using cannabis in Canada, issuing a statement saying “The consulate would like to remind the Chinese citizens in the consular district, especially international students, in order to protect your own physical and mental health, please avoid contact or using marijuana.”

On the other hand, China currently holds over 50 percent of the global patents on cannabis, that's 309 out of 606 total patents.  It also has jumped head first into hemp production, and currently supplies more than 50 percent of the world's hemp. China is never one to play its full hand in the open, but the early evidence seems to suggest it may soon become a significant player in the global cannabis industry.

As the dust settles from the Canadian roll of recreational cannabis, it will be fascinating to see how Canada’s major Asian trading partners react. The market potential of cannabis cannot be understated, but it may be challenging for politicians in the region to negotiate the historically strong and negative opinions on the plant. There will very likely be quite contradictory futures for cannabis across Asia.