HIGH TIME FOR CHANGE
Marijuana is gaining favour for its medical properties, with some Asian countries looking at ways to profifit from global demand.
At a time when public alarm is rising about the scourge of opioid abuse, many countries are taking a closer look at marijuana as a safer option for treating pain. Legalisation of medicinal marijuana is on the rise across the western world, and some countries now allow recreational use.
Asia will probably be the last place in the world to make cannabis legal, even though writings from 5,000 years ago indicate that doctors in China were recommending a tea made from cannabis leaves to treat various conditions including gout. China today is a marijuana-growing superpower, though few are willing to discuss it publicly given the country’s strict anti-drug laws.
Cannabis plants contain more than a hundred compounds known as cannabinoids, not all of which get people high. Non-psychoactive chemical compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) can be extracted and processed to treat many conditions.
Studies have shown that CBD can be used to treat convulsive seizures in children with a severe and often fatal epilepsy disorder. It can also provide significant relief of Parkinson’s disease symptoms by increasing dopamine levels. Cannabis has become a mainstream treatment for cancer patients, helping reduce nausea from chemotherapy.
Studies have also found that smoked marijuana helps increase food intake in HIV patients while people who took marijuana extracts in clinical trials tended to need less pain medicine. Altogether, the World Health Organization estimates that around 147 million people or 2.5% of the world’s population, use cannabis every day.
According to Arcview Market Research, which follows the cannabis industry, spending on legal cannabis worldwide is expected to reach US$57 billion — two-thirds recreational and one-third medical — by 2027.
Arcview sees sales in North America reaching $47.3 billion in 2027, compared with $9.2 billion in 2017. However, growth rates will be even faster in some other countries, notably in Australia, where the legal cannabis market is set to become the fifth largest in the world with a value of $1.2 billion, versus $52 million this year.
The world’s biggest medicinal cannabis company, Canada-based Canopy Growth Corporation, is now planning to set up its southern hemisphere headquarters in Victoria. It expects to spend $16 million establishing a hub for cultivation and production in Australia with a longterm view of exporting the product.
ADVANCES IN ASIA
Singapore, home to some of the strictest drug laws in the world, is now funding research into medical treatments from synthetically derived marijuana compounds, as part of a $25- million initiative to promote the city- state’s biotech industry.
In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, the government is spearheading a plan to cultivate cannabis on 100 acres in north-central Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts. The aim is to export around 25,000 kilogrammes of marijuana to North America. Pending cabinet approval, farmers will be hired by the state and production supervised by the military.
“If the private sector is given the green light for cannabis cultivation it will require permits and other regulatory mechanisms will have to be imposed. This way, there will be no need to issue permits, since no private parties are involved,” Public Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told the Sunday Observer newspaper.
China jumped on the bandwagon a long time ago. Back in the 1970s, the military was looking for a fabric that could keep soldiers clean and dry in tropical conditions. Hemp, a form of cannabis with a low amount of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was chosen for its breathable and antibacterial properties.
Chinese companies have filed 309 of the 606 patents relating to cannabis since 2014, many for herbal treatments, according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
“The predominance of Chinese patents suggests that pharmaceutical sciences are evolving quickly in China, outpacing Western capabilities,” Dr Luc Duchesne, an Ottawa-based businessman and biochemist, wrote in an article for InvestorIntel. “[Chinese traditional medicine] is poised to take advantage of a growing trend.”
Peter Reynolds, leader of Cannabis Law Reform (Clear), a UK-based campaign group, told The Independent in 2014 that China had another advantage as it is one of the world’s largest producers of industrial hemp. Cannabis sativa or hemp has been cultivated in China for centuries, mainly for its strong fibres which can be turned into rope, fabric and paper.
“The Chinese are smarter and they are on to all the good ideas,” he said. “The potential for cannabis as a medicine is monumental,” said Mr Reynolds.
Hemp farmer Jiang Xingquan told the South China Morning Post last year that he had set aside 600 hectares on his farm in Heilongjiang province near the Russian border to legally grow cannabis sativa.
He sells the stems to textile factories to make high-quality fabric, the leaves to pharmaceutical companies for drugs, and the seeds to food companies to make snacks, kitchen oil and drinks. He now earns 10,000 yuan ($1,500) per hectare of marijuana compared to a few thousand yuan for more common crops like corn.
“That’s pure profit,” he told the newspaper, adding that the crop has few natural enemies so there’s little need for expensive pesticides.
Heilongjiang and Yunnan were the major cannabis growing centres in China long before they were legalised and regulated: Yunnan in 2003 and Heilongjiang in 2016. Together they account for half of the world’s legal commercial hemp cannabis cultivation, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
There are no official figures for marijuana production as the Chinese government still classifies the plant as an illicit drug. Anyone with more than 5 kilogrammes of processed marijuana leaves can face the death penalty. Authorities, however, turn a blind eye to farmers growing the low-THC variety of cannabis because it is an important source of income for some.
“It’s a big figure. It cannot be revealed to the public. Many farms are, strictly speaking, illegal under current law and regulations,” said Yang Ming, the head scientist of the cannabis sativa research programme at the Institute of Industrial Crops at the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
South Korea, meanwhile, has seen a huge increase in the number of people brining in cannabis products for medical purposes in recent years, despite the risk of five-year jail terms for anyone who gets caught.
Last year 80 people were caught bringing in medicinal cannabis products though South Korean airports and seaports, up from 10 cases in 2016, according to the Korea Customs Service.
“The current [narcotics control] law doesn’t reflect what’s going on outside Korea or help sick people who need medical help,” Kang Sung-suk of the Organisation for Legalising Medical Cannabis in Korea told The Korea Times in April.
DEVELOPMENTS IN THAILAND
Thailand, famed for the potent “Thai stick” strain of marijuana prized by American soldiers during the Vietnam war, is now flirting with the idea of legalising cannabis for medicinal use. If it happened, it would be the first country in Asia to do so.
The cabinet earlier this year approved a Narcotics Control Board proposal for farmers to grow industrial hemp, or cannabis sativa, in 15 districts of six provinces: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Tak, Phetchabun and Mae Hong Son. Raw materials processed from hemp can be used for the manufacturing of clothes, bulletproof vests, building materials, food supplements, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
As for medicinal marijuana, the debate is continuing, but it has a very high-profile supporter
“We are still waiting for the law to tell us exactly when and how much we can grow per year and we have to wait until the end of the year again to find out where” ‘66 ZOMBIES’ Thai cannabis grower
in Dr Arthit Ouraitat, a former cabinet minister and now rector of Rangsit University.
Rangsit researchers obtained permission from the Narcotics Control Board to develop a cannabis extract spray for cancer patients. However, it cannot be brought to the market until the law changes.
“Be brave. Let us use medical marijuana legally regardless of the method,” Dr Arthit said in April. “It will be your legacy … although you have to use Section 44, I want you to use it for this,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has absolute power under Section 44 of the military-drafted charter, and can continue to exercise it under the new constitution until a new government is formed.
“Those who have cancer, they cannot wait. They need the help now, so I think we need to take every shortcut possible,” said Dr Arthit.
Meanwhile, Thai Cannabis Corporation (TCC), the country’s first legal cannabis company, is embarking on a five-year project to cultivate 5,000 hectares of cannabis, in cooperation with Chiang Mai-based Maejo University and the Royal Project Foundation.
The company’s goal is to establish a low-cost model to grow, harvest and process cannabis plants into oils and extracts to be use by makers of high-quality health and beauty products, packaged food and beverages, nutraceuticals, alternative medicines, traditional medicines, and pharmaceuticals in and outside the country.
It will f ocus on breeding CBD cannabis strains that comply with current Thai law which requires cannabis to contain less than 1% THC. “If and when Thai law enables the company to produce cannabis with THC exceeding 1%, the company will expand its product line accordingly,” the company says on its website.
Despite cabinet approval last month of a draft bill permitting research into the effects of medicinal cannabis on humans, marijuana is still categorised as a Class 5 narcotic under the 1979 Narcotic Drugs Act. It allows planting for medical purposes but not human trials.
Recreational use is still illegal in Thailand, with jail terms of up for five years for possession, cultivation and transport of up to 10kg.
It is not clear when the National Legislative Assembly will pass the human-research draft bill, but TCC and others are preparing for new developments.
One prospective grower and supplier of soil who is now in talks with TCC said the company last month called a first meeting with local farmers in Chiang Mai. He is hoping for the law to take effect by the end of this year.
“There weren’t any pharmaceutical companies at the meeting as far as I know but there were farmers there who are interested in growing the crop as an alternative,” the grower who is known in the industry as “66 Zombies” told Asia Focus.
“There is a lot of interest from local farmers and exporters because the choices in export are abundant and can cover a wide range of industries. This will also benefit the farmers because they can grow this alongside their existing crops such as rice without having to stop growing their main crop,” he said.
Thailand’s climate, he believes, is supportive for cannabis sativa L or land-raised hemp. “If we use the local land-raised strain then there is no problem to grow it at all, or you can mix the local strain with CBD from America and Europe and it will work for medical purposes as well.
“We are still waiting for the law to tell us exactly when and how much we can grow per year and we have to wait until the end of the year again to find out where. TCC will most likely be one of the first in line to get a licence since it has been involved with research on cannabis sativa alongside the Royal Project Foundation from the start.”