TAIPEI -- Several Asian countries are considering steps to decriminalize medical cannabis, potentially putting the region on course to becoming the world's main production hub of the drug.
A proposal to revise the legal framework in Thailand was submitted last month to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has supported the plan. This makes it possible for medical cannabis legislation to be enacted by the end of the year.
Thailand's cabinet approved draft legislation in May to permit more research into the effects of medical cannabis. The Government Pharmaceutical Organization, a state enterprise that makes pharmaceutical products, has begun clinical trials with the aim of producing medicines for four conditions.
But Southeast Asia is no Canada, which last month legalized cannabis for recreational use. The region has some of the world's strictest narcotics laws, with some countries having the death penalty for drug offenses. Yet a recent case in Malaysia appears to show a shift in official attitudes.
A 29-year-old man who had been sentenced to death after being found guilty of selling medical cannabis oil to cancer patients has been taken off death row. The Malaysian government began informal talks in September on revising laws to allow medical use of the drug. In October, Liew Vui Keong, the cabinet minister for legal affairs, said the country would abolish capital punishment entirely, including for drug violations.
The minister also stated that if drugs such as marijuana and morphine are being used to treat cancer patients, the country can review their legal status.
Even in Singapore there are signs of change. While the city-state has strict penalties for drug offenses, earlier this year it announced a program to unlock the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids -- chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. As part of the country’s 25 million Singapore dollar ($18.2 million) synthetic biology research and development program, the initiative is aimed at discovering cannabinoid genes for the sustainable production of medicinal cannabinoids and their derivatives.
Elsewhere in Asia, the governments of India and the Philippines are discussing whether to legalize the medical cannabis market, while Sri Lanka is set to launch its first plantation for domestic medical use and exports to the U.S.
While China is showing no sign of following suit on legalization of cannabis, the world's second-largest economy produces more than half the world's industrial hemp. This member of the cannabis plant family contains a high content of cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound with proven anodyne, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties. The substance can help to reduce chronic pain, muscle spasms, epilepsy and the side effects of chemotherapy, making it one of the leading applications of hemp in the U.S.
"Medicalization is already happening in China and the Chinese government is encouraging medical cannabis research," said Saul Kaye, founder and CEO of iCAN: Israel Cannabis, a company that develops medical cannabis formulations and devices. "China has a rich botanical medical history and cannabis was historically used as a Chinese herb."
Kaye added that Israeli, Canadian and U.S. companies are already active in China. The country is poised to become the main global supplier of CBD, and could also quickly gain expertise in medical cannabis applications.
The global legal medical marijuana market is expected to reach $55.8 billion by the end of 2025, according to San Francisco-based Grand View Research.
Even so, Ja Lee, an analyst at CB Insights, a data analysis company based in New York, said medical marijuana research is still at a nascent stage across Asia.
"While some Asian countries consider studying marijuana's effects, there are still strict laws surrounding drug usage," Lee said. "As North American companies look at the Asian markets, they'll keep a close eye on these regulations that will directly impact scalability and drug research and development portfolios."
China holds more than half of the 600 international cannabis patents that have been filed, including methods of administering the drug from oils to patches, according to data from the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization.
Health care aside, the commercial potential of marijuana is being tapped by Asian countries like Thailand, which has a long history of cultivating native strains.
Certain growers in Thailand, one of the world's largest cannabis exporters in the 1980s, are reviving its famous landrace strains, according to Jim Plamondon, vice president of Thai Cannabis Corp., which describes itself as the first legal cannabis company in the country.
"Some of them are high in THC [tetrahydrocannabinols], some high in CBD, and some have a balance of both," Plamondon said. "The more potent the strain, the higher the yield of cannabinoid per hectare, all else being equal."
He also indicated that Thailand is looking to get business from multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which have already explored the inclusion of cannabinoids such as CBD in their products.
According to Kaye of iCAN, Asian countries can draw from the experiences of Israel and the West to begin reaping profits from drug development in just two years.
But there are concerns over criminal influence if regulations change significantly.
"Corruption is the primary risk -- the concern that the cartels trafficking drugs today are able to maintain influence in a regulated market," said John Downs, director of business development of Arcview Group, a San Francisco-based cannabis investment and market research company.
"However, data shows that in markets that legalize, incidents of crime and trafficking decline as there is no longer a strong price incentive for gangs to grow and sell cannabis," he said.
Downs added that, over time, cannabis will become a commodity, and Asian countries, particularly China, can become low-cost producers with high production capacity -- and able to export overseas in just a few years.
But the situation in South Korea highlights the complications surrounding the cannabis industry in the region.
While the country said in July that it would promote efforts to allow imports of marijuana-derived medication that have been approved for use overseas, it does not plan to fully legalize the cannabis market in the country any time soon.
After Canada legalized recreational use on Oct. 17, South Korea followed Japan in warning citizens against smoking pot in the North American country, saying it was still an offense under South Korean law.
"Legalization for adult use is a different ballgame and is not on the table in Asia or China specifically at the moment," said iCAN's Kaye.