Is Cannabis a Dangerous Drug or Medical Milestone?

Cannabis is still stigmatised in Asia, but signs of change are occurring following the United Nations’ decision to remove cannabis for medicinal purposes from the list of the world’s most dangerous drugs. Asia Thinkers looks at the action taken by Asian Governments to legalise the drug and interviews netizens in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to gain an understanding of the public support and concerns with recent legislation allowing cannabis to be sold publicly — as well as its potential impact on Asian society.

Hemp plants for medical research in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Photo: Getty Images

Cannabis in Southeast Asian countries has been historically opposed with Governments taking a dim view on drug use, dealing and trafficking. In the past, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have all delivered extremely harsh punishments, including the death penalty, for drug offences. The tide is turning in Asia, however, with Thailand leading the way. In 2019 Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to legalize cannabis for medical use. The government is encouraging farmers in the country to cultivate the crop and is calling on hospitals to champion its usage, stating that the study of its potential “should be sped up for the medical industry to create economic opportunity and income for the people.”

It is predicted that Thailand’s legal cannabis market for both medical and recreational use could be worth $661 million USD by 2024, while Asia’s market could reach $5.8 billion USD, according to the Asia Cannabis Report. Unsurprisingly other Southeast Asian countries are on track to follow suit, Malaysia, Singapore and even the Philippines are making moves towards legalizing medical marijuana. In December 2020, the United Nations voted to remove cannabis for medicinal purposes from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs, accelerating the expansion of marijuana research and medical use in Southeast Asia.

What is cannabis?

Cannabis is derived from any part of the genus Cannabis plant, also known as marijuana, weed, pot or ganja. There are two widely studied components of the cannabis plant: CBD, a non-hallucinating compound sold in the bud, oil and tinctures, used for calming inflammation and nerves; and THC, the psychoactive constituent that is more often used for recreational purposes and is still illegal in most countries.

According to a 2018 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, both CBD and THC ingredients are applied in medicinal practices but used to treat different symptoms. Concerning THC, studies have also found that it is addictive with adverse health consequences such as impaired learning and poor memory. It is also linked to the development of major psychiatric illnesses. While there is some evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for some medical conditions, there are insufficient studies on the long-term effects of using such drugs.

ASEAN countries moving towards legalising cannabis

Many countries in Asia have made headlines for their strict punishment for possessing, trafficking and consuming cannabis — including the ongoing war on drugs in the Philippines. But some nations are nevertheless softening their attitude toward the once-taboo drug, and integrating it into medical care in the region. Currently, Canada, Uruguay and Mexico are the only countries that have fully legalised the recreational use of cannabis. But the legalisation of medicinal marijuana has been spreading across the world, including, notably, western nations such as Israel, Australia, and Germany.

In Asia, Seoul, Hong Kong and Thailand look to be leading the way in the normalisation and legalisation of sale and production of medical marijuana. Thailand is the only Southeast Asia country that has fully legalised medicinal cannabis, with others actively looking into the plant’s health-care applications. Although other Asian countries are considering legalising medical marijuana, the stigma surrounding the ‘drug’ still exists, and countries are finding it challenging to shift this attitude. If investment continues to grow, and countries see the medical benefits as well as an influx of medical marijuana tourists, especially during the COVID-19 recovery period, hearts and minds may change in favour of the cannabis revolution.

Asia Thinkers spoke with netizens and interest groups from Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, where different approaches to the legalisation of medicinal cannabis are being reviewed. All of these countries have had strict laws against cannabis usage and are evaluating the potential for medical treatment while continuing to maintain strict controls over recreational usage.

Thailand

Thailand has had a long relationship with cannabis. Marijuana had been used as medicine in Thailand for centuries before the possession, sale, and use of cannabis was criminalised in 1934. It wasn’t until 2019 when deputy prime minister and health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul started championing the return of this highly popular plant that wider acceptance became in vogue. In 2019, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to allow for the growth and consumption of medical marijuana and has an ambitious market expansion goal, poised to be worth more than US$660 million by 2024.

A spokesman for Cannabis Asia a website supporting cannabis legislation in Thailand said that; In fact, “Thailand is the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise the herb for medical patients. Qualified patients are issued certificates by the government, and they can freely medicate with pot. This law, which was passed last year, maybe the first step they took towards legalisation.”

Despite these changes, cannabis is still listed as a class-5 narcotic under the Thai Narcotics Act of 1969-79. Possession of the plant for recreational purposes is still criminalised and tough penalties remain. Currently, the possession of cannabis in Thailand is only allowed and legal through proper medical approval and certification.

Asia Thinkers spoke with a Kitty, a university student from a farming family in Chiang Mai.

Do you support the government’s move to research and grow cannabis for medical treatment, are there concerns that this may lead to further drug abuse if it is legalised for recreational use?

I very much support the move by the government to legalise medicinal Cannabis. My mother has cancer, and although she has been using cannabis oil she can now obtain it legally. I will be visiting a government clinic in Chiang Mai to register her and obtain medicinal cannabis to treat her as this would help to relieve symptoms and manage the pain. The other benefit is that we will be allowed to grow it at home and sell it to government research centres, which will bring in extra income for my family and support my studies. I don’t think that legalising cannabis for medical or recreational use will encourage more drug abuse. In Chiang Mai, cannabis has been used as family medicine for generations and can be purchased easily even though it is illegal. The bigger concern is hard drugs such as heroin which can also be easily obtained in Chang Mai, these drugs cause the most damage and should remain illegal.

A supporter of “Cannabis Walk Thailand”, a walkathon organised by pro-cannabis groups told Asia Thinkers that: their aim “is to fully decriminalise marijuana. I believe it should be available for all. Legalising it won’t change the drug situation as those that want to use cannabis already obtain it through illegal channels, it is easily available and even used by tourists. “

Malaysia

Cannabis, commonly called marijuana or ganja in Malaysia, has been used for hundreds of years as a sedative and during various religious rituals. It was outlawed by the British in 1952 and today cannabis in Malaysia is illegal with the mandatory death penalty for trafficking.

In 2018, there was public outrage over a death penalty handed to a young cannabis trafficker, and the sentence was questioned by the then PM Mahathir. This led the Malaysian cabinet to begin discussions over legalising cannabis for medical use. However, the Malaysian Government has made no further progress, even though other Asian countries are changing their laws. Some NGOs such as the “Malaysian Society of Awareness” have continued to call on the Malaysian Government to again consider legalising the use of cannabis for medical purposes.

A member of an NGO favouring medical cannabis legalisation commented that “the issue surrounding drugs in Malaysia is that it remains a very conservative society and from a religious standpoint, the use of cannabis is deemed haram or prohibited”. “This prohibition serves as a strong motivation, particularly for the Muslim community, to outright refuse the legalisation of cannabis in Malaysia even though there is evidence that the illegal use of cannabis is growing amongst Malaysian youth”

Asia Thinkers spoke with a Rajoo, a former police officer from Kuala Lumpur.

Do you support the government’s move to research and grow cannabis for medical treatment, are there concerns that this may lead to further drug abuse if it is legalised for recreational use?

I fully support any government decision to legalise cannabis for medical purposes. I was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago, and the prescribed medications and chemotherapy did not provide a cure. I was advised by friends to try cannabis oil which was an ‘underground medicine. It was illegal, but I had stopped chemotherapy because of the terrible side effects. “Good or not good, I had to try it.” I relied only on cannabis oil, taken orally, to treat my cancer. After 90 days the doctor couldn’t find any cancer cells. Although this may not work for everyone, I strongly believe that this alternative cure should be available for everyone to try. My years as a police officer tell me that Malaysia should not legalise cannabis for recreational use. Malaysia already has a strong underground drug culture and does not have the community safeguards to prevent the abusive use of cannabis.”

Singapore

Cannabis in Singapore was thought to be introduced by immigrant labourers from India. It was banned in 1870 during the British colonial period. Singapore is long known for its staunch stance against drugs and cannabis use, including the death penalty for trafficking. In January 2018, Singapore announced that it would start developing chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant as a part of a US$19 million investment into synthetic biology, kicking off research into medical applications for cannabis. This was intended to push Singapore’s “bio-based economy and grow new industries to create jobs. Furthermore, the government has agreed to allow imports of pharmaceutical products containing certain cannabis extracts under strict controls without changing Singapore’s zero-tolerance position against drugs.

The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Health said: “it was important to differentiate between products containing unprocessed or raw cannabis and pharmaceutical products containing cannabinoids.” A spokesperson for a group who wants to legalise cannabis for medical purposes in Singapore told Asia Thinkers, ”Singaporeans are brought up to believe that all drugs are bad and not to look further than that, even if science says otherwise, and even though there are cannabis plants out there that can help people like cancer patients to manage and treat their pain.”

In what may appear as a change in attitude to the issue, health and science ministries have approved a medical cannabis-based drug to be used in the treatment of a young girl afflicted with refractory epilepsy – the first case of its kind in Singapore.

Asia Thinkers spoke with a Ben, a retired Singaporean Civil servant whose wife recently died from cancer.

Do you support the government’s move to research and grow Cannabis for medical treatment, are there concerns that this may lead to further drug abuse if it is legalised for recreational use?

Before my wife died from cancer, I had researched many different treatments including alternative medicines such as medicinal cannabis. I could not find any conclusive proof that cannabis would assist in curing cancer. In my view, there is no conclusive evidence to support the safety and efficiency of cannabis as a form of medical treatment for major illnesses. Singapore has strict controls on drug abuse resulting in a low level of drug addiction as compared to other countries. Whilst I agree with allowing cannabis research and treatment where we find there is a strong body of medical evidence to support the use as a therapy, I am not convinced that current medical research supports the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for medical treatment, and we have to ask ourselves “do the benefits outweigh the risks to society?” I would never agree to it being legalised for recreational use.

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