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After legalizing medical cannabis in February, Thailand officially began distributing cannabis oil to eligible hospital patients last week. This marks a significant development in a region where many drug offenses still result in life sentences or executions.

As Thailand stakes its place in the rapidly growing medical cannabis market, and following in the footsteps of countries like Canada, Australia, the US, and Israel, it sets the stage for Southeast Asia to undergo a great medical and economic transition. Indeed, Bangkok’s initiative acts as a catalyst for the entire region and opens the door for the medical cannabis industry in Asia.

What’s next for Asia?

The future for the medical cannabis industry in Asia is promising and the region is hinting at more reforms that will provide regulatory security and commercial confidence to the sector. Take Malaysia and the Philippines for example. Malaysia is about to decriminalize some forms of cannabis use – a significant step forward for a country that only a few years ago imposed mandatory death sentences for drug traffickers. Recently, Malaysian Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad was quoted stating that drug decriminalization will “indeed be a critical step towards achieving a national drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration.”

The Philippines in January 2019 passed a bill that would expand research and access to medical properties of cannabis. A country with perhaps the most draconian drug laws in the world, the Philippines drug policy of shooting dealers and addicts on sight has been heavily criticized by the international community. It is no small feat, therefore, that the same government that created this policy is also now pushing to legalize certain uses of cannabis.

However, contrast this with Singapore, whose approach is to subject any cannabis derivative to strict regulation under the nation’s Health Sciences Authority. Law and Home Affairs Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam claims that the medical benefits of cannabis are “bunkum” and offer no benefit. In a joint statement with the Home Affairs and Health Ministries he claimed: “To date, there are no studies which have validated the claims of unprocessed or raw cannabis being able to treat medical conditions.” Singapore’s reluctance to accept medical cannabis shows a region polarized by differing political outlooks and attitudes. This poses a challenge to Southeast Asia given its close trade and political alliances – economic setbacks can be expected if the region as a whole is not prepared to adopt medical cannabis.

Following Canada’s lead

Asia, while socially conservative, can look to recent Canadian policy reform to guide its entrance into the market. Canada is pioneering the global cannabis industry and is regarded as the most cannabis-friendly nation in the world, having legalized and regulated medical and recreational usage. Thoughtful policy shifts in Ottawa have allowed the country to create an incredibly valuable economic sector that helps boost the national budget. Indeed, Asian nations are looking to Canada for best practices amidst an ever-expanding global market.

Asia, while socially conservative, can look to recent Canadian policy reform to guide its entrance into the market

Canada’s Department of Justice has a thorough layout on the rules, laws, and regulations on marijuana, placing special attention to highlight the strict legal framework that both protects the industry as well as Canadian citizens. The legislation under the Cannabis Act indicates that cannabis can be used to advance medical treatments in a controlled, monitored and safe environment. Ottawa’s emphasis on keeping cannabis out of the hands of youth, while keeping “profits out of the pockets of criminals,” all while protecting “public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis” sets a high and safe tone for other countries to follow should they undergo cannabis regulatory reform.

CBD: The first step to broader reform

While Asia is slow to join the rungs of medical cannabis pioneers like Canada, the region can take small steps towards reform as a starting point. Canada’s legalization process did not happen overnight and was in fact a near 20-year process beginning with the legalization of industrial hemp (from which CBD is derived) in 1998. After two decades of national discussions and comprehensive research, Canada’s legalization of the plant has guaranteed ordinary Canadians access to its medical benefits and created incredibly valuable commercial opportunities. Most importantly, Canada has effectively put together political, scientific and commercial infrastructure from which the rest of the world can copy in order to expedite legislative reforms and medical advances.

While Canadian medical cannabis has caught global attention, Canada’s commercial success in CBD-derived medical applications that address everyday aches and pains is particularly impressive. Such products allow users to reduce muscle and joint pain, inflammation and eczema and serve as a substitute for some prescription medications.

Toronto-based CBDMEDIC, for example, is a major player with a unique success story mastering CBD-based products. The company has developed and produced an array of topical medications in the form of ointments and creams, that harness CBD to treat conditions like arthritis, muscle pain, eczema, and acne. CBDMEDIC, and companies like it, owe their success to Canada’s strong regulatory framework that has encouraged private enterprise to create innovative and valuable medical products. What’s more, progress in the US has allowed the company to view the changing regulatory landscape with optimism.

“At Abacus our focus is on delivering safe, effective and long-lasting pain relief products. We are thrilled to reach this important milestone and become a public company which will allow us to aggressively pursue the significant market opportunity that has come about following the recent passing of the 2018 US Farm Bill. We look forward to introducing our products to consumers across the United States over the coming months,” said Perry Antelman, CEO of Abacus, the company behind CBDMEDIC.

Asia’s choice

If the Canadian medical cannabis industry looks strong, then Asia is in for a treat. It is expected that within the next five to 10 years, the Asian medical cannabis market may surpass that of North America if the region collectively relaxes its laws and encourages commercial opportunities. Large-scale domestic production operations and world-wide trade opportunities present Asia with an incredibly valuable economic proposition, particularly in light of the recent regional slowdown. Facing a crossroads, Asia has a distinct choice: either follow in Canada’s footsteps by legalizing medical cannabis, or remain stuck in the past and deny much-needed health and wealth opportunities to its citizens.

Also read: Israeli researchers bet on cannabis for pets

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Lin Nguyen

Lin Nguyen is an analyst in South Asian regional security, focusing on economic and political developments. Nguyen works on projects advising South Asian government ministries and also private enterprises seeking to do business in the region. She leverages her experience to write publicly about pressing economic and political issues that concern Asia at large.

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