HIGH TIME FOR CHANGE

Mar­i­juana is gain­ing favour for its med­i­cal prop­er­ties, with some Asian coun­tries look­ing at ways to profi­fit from global de­mand.

Bangkok Post - - ASIA | FOCUS - By Erich Parpart

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.”

A worker col­lects cut­tings from a mar­i­juana plant at the Canopy Growth Corp fa­cil­ity in Smiths Falls, just out­side the Cana­dian cap­i­tal of Ot­tawa. One of the world’s largest med­i­cal mar­i­juana grow­ers, Canopy is also the first com­pany of its kind to be...

A cus­tomer waits to pur­chase mar­i­juana at Har­bor­side, one of Cal­i­for­nia’s largest and old­est dis­pen­saries of med­i­cal mar­i­juana, in Oakland.

A ven­ture cap­i­tal booth is seen at the Cannabis World Congress in Los An­ge­les in Septem­ber last year.

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