Join the Newsletter

Stay up-to date with food+ag+climate tech and investment trends, and industry-leading news and analysis, globally.

Subscribe to receive the AFN & AgFunder
newsletter each week.

Marijuana plants growing on stacks of coins isolated on white background. Marijuana growing business concept.

A mini-guide to cannabis in Asia

August 31, 2019

“This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” said the Chairman of the country’s draft committee, Somchai Sawangkarn, as the Thai parliament voted to amend the Narcotic Act of 1979.

This Christmas Day 2018 ‘gift’ for the Thai people, approving the medical use of marijuana, could be credited for sparking a ‘Green Gold’ rush in the region.

Timeline: Changes to Cannabis Laws in Asia in 2019

    • 18 Feb 2019: Thailand’s law to legalize medical use took effect
    • 12 Mar 2019: South Korea’s law to legalize medical use took effect
    • 24 Mar 2019: Japan approves trials for cannabis compound Epidiolex    

After all, this Southeast Asian nation has gained a reputation for leading the ASEAN pack in adopting ‘Western’ laws (Thailand also seems poised to legalize same-sex unions soon). Thailand’s early stance on the drug is perhaps unsurprising since it was Thai tradition to use marijuana to relieve fatigue and labor pains until it was criminalized in 1935.

South Korea’s policy to legalize medical marijuana took effect on March 12. Japan followed suit, approving clinical trials on March 24 for the cannabis compound Epidiolex, an oral solution used in treating persons with epilepsy.

Meanwhile, Laos and Cambodia have also started to explore the potential for a form of legalization, according to Brian Armstrong, CEO of Vinzan International, a global cannabis trading company. He calls Thailand’s decision “a major first step in Asia” that could “potentially spread across the region.”

Further down south the peninsula, Malaysia’s Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said in late June that “there should be decriminalization of drugs,” marking a change of stance. He noted that though drugs “destroyed many lives, wrongheaded governmental policies have destroyed many more.”

Armstrong also adds caution, citing Canada as an example: “eliminating the illegal market for cannabis does not happen overnight.” And, although the legalization of medical marijuana will taper the lifeline for illicit marijuana dealers, he feels that “ensuring legally grown cannabis does not spill over into the illegal market is an important part of any country’s medical cannabis program.”

“It is important that all medical cannabis producers act accordingly and ensure their products are used only for medical purposes.”

Cannabis… in Singapore? Isn’t that a taboo topic?

Even in AFN’s newest base Singapore, research into medical applications for cannabis has kicked off, and it’s received millions of dollars in backing.

In January 2018, the National Research Foundation launched a S$25 million ($18 million) Synthetic Biology Research and Development initiative, which includes the Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology Programme. It aims to identify cannabinoid genes for the “sustainable production of medicinal cannabinoids, without the need to grow the plant.”

All this, however, is taking place against the backdrop of the Lion City’s reputation of dealing with drug traffickers with an iron hand. The import or export of more than 500 grams of cannabis could warrant a death sentence, according to the country’s Central Narcotics Bureau. Neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia also enact similar punishment for the possession or trafficking of the substance.

One company that’s chosen to set up base in the Lion City, hoping to tap into the global industrial market, is CannAcubed. It’s an industrial cannabis grower whose operations are mostly located in China. Its main business is exporting cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating derivative of either the hemp or marijuana plant, into Europe and other northern markets.

We chose (to set up base in) Singapore because of its clean and safe environment record. We want to be seen as a support base for countries across Asia that may be seeking advice or data in the industry and how this may affect future regulatory or legal amendments to policy,” says company CEO, Glenn Davies, speaking exclusively to AFN. “It’s a strong and stable investment environment, which provides the ideal platform for growth and development.”

According to Harvard Health Publishing, CBD may help treat conditions like pain, insomnia, and anxiety. The US Food & Drug Administration is still in the process of refining its regulatory strategy toward CBD products, although it’s widely available across the US. It’s also being added to sports drinks, restaurant menus, and soon to be available in most Walgreens.

A cannabis side note:

Although this is one of the first cannabis-related stories on our Asia site, our Global arm has full coverage – including an interview with Mary Dimou from Canopy Rivers on how private cannabis investing is progressing by my editor, Louisa. My fellow reporter Lauren Manning also did a great piece on an AI-powered app that helps users find the exact high they’re looking for.

CannAcubed is registered in Singapore as a biotech firm and set up as a “diversified cannabis company,” explains Davies. He says his company’s operations in Singapore are legal, provided they are conducted beyond its borders. Davies is also president of the Asia Industrial Hemp Association, a non-profit trade association seeking to support farmers and business members serving the hemp industry.

Snapshot: Death Penalties in Asia for Cannabis

    • Singapore: “Illegal traffic, import or export” of more than 500g
    • Malaysia: Death penalty for possession of “more than 200g”
    • Indonesia: The trafficking of drugs can “result” in being dealt the death penalty

Asia could be #1, but regulations need to catch up

With countries in the APAC region softening their stances, it’s clear that they’re paving the way to get a slice of the global $13.8 billion legal marijuana market. It’s projected that it’ll reach $66.3 billion by the end of 2025, according to California-based market research firm Grand View Research.

“If regulation moves fast, Asia could be the #1 supplier of cannabis and medical devices, and lead the way in investment,” says Saul Kaye, Founder and CEO of Israel Cannabis (iCAN), speaking exclusively to AFN. “While there is positive momentum with South Korea and Thailand, regulators in APAC still have a way to go to meet the needs of patients, and the industry will need to be ready for the local market. The Asian region has a long history of botanical medicine and cannabis should be a part of that.”

iCAN organizes CannaTech, an international cannabis summit held annually in Tel Aviv, which has also been brought to London, Sydney, Hong Kong, Panama, and Cape Town. Kaye says they’re organizing the summit in China for the first time in 2020, as they believe it will be a major grower of cannabis and manufacturer of devices.

“China has been cultivating hemp for thousands of years, for textiles, building materials, and hemp seed oil. More recently, they have allowed two regions to cultivate hemp for CBD extraction, although locally, there is no medical cannabis allowed,” adds Kaye.

Vinzan International’s Armstrong echoes Davies’ sentiments, calling APAC “the new frontier for medical cannabis,” adding that “it could become the largest market and producer worldwide”.

“Cannabis is native to Asia, which makes the growing conditions ideal and the culture of contract farming and global export make it the ideal place for the industry to grow,” he says.

Speaking to AFN while at CannaBiz Invest Asia in Bangkok, CannAcubed’s Davies says most of the discussions there are around growth in Asia in medical cannabis and hemp, and he notes there’s “a consensus the region is extremely optimistic and bullish when it comes to this sector.”

“But there’s a long way to go,” cautions Davies. “It’s only a matter of time before we see the region as a whole make moves in this sector.”

“We have to speed up production because there is an undersupply (in Thailand)…”

But when will the industry take off in Asia? Thailand, for its part, unveiled its first legal cannabis greenhouse on February 27, nine days after the law legalizing the drug’s medical use took effect. The country’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization said it invested ฿100 million ($3.27 million) in the closed-system farming facility, including the installation of the supporting system for a 100 square meter indoor plantation, according to Reuters.

Some five months later, the country’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) gave out about 10,000 bottles of cannabis oil for hospital patients on August 7, marking the first official medical use of marijuana.

GPO’s executive managing director, Withoon Danwiboon, said that the oil will be used to treat patients who suffer from nausea resulting from chemotherapy, epilepsy, and aches and pains. He added that those with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and in palliative care were also to have access to the solution.

“We have to speed up production because there is an undersupply,” he added.

The GPO was planning to plant its second crop of cannabis plants in late August. By early 2020, the Thai state enterprise has plans to expand production to greenhouse cultivation and aims to produce 150,000-200,000 bottles of the oil. Danwiboon added that foreign investors and imports of cannabis will be prohibited for five years, to allow the domestic industry to build up capacity and knowledge.

“It won’t happen overnight, but there is a clear path for Thailand to become a cannabis powerhouse,” says Vinzan’s Armstrong. “The global trade of cannabis products is still in the process of developing, but Thailand has a unique opportunity to become a global exporter.”

AFN has reached out to Thailand’s GPO for further comment. Stay tuned for updates.

Timeline: Thailand’s Progress in Medical Cannabis

    • 18 Feb 2019: Law to legalize medical use took effect
    • 27 Feb 2019: Unveiled its first legal cannabis greenhouse
    • 7 Aug 2019: The GPO distributes 10,000 bottles of cannabis oil for hospital patients
    • Late Aug 2019: The GPO was to plant its second crop of cannabis plants
    • By early 2020: GPO targets production of 150,000-200,000 bottles of cannabis oil

Source: Reuters

The Thai Cannabis Corporation (TCC) advises AFN that patience is a virtue when it comes to governments in the region amending drug laws. Their spokesperson reassures us that Thailand is making good progress.

“All jurisdictions that legalize cannabis take a long time, after the enabling legalization to get the regulations right, and some oscillation around the optimal rules. Thailand is doing no worse than any other newly-legalized jurisdiction in this regard,” says Jim Plamondon, VP of Marketing of TCC.

In fact, Plamondon sings praises of Thailand’s ability to cultivate cannabis, compared to what he calls “Australia’s sub-optimal climate,” which he says requires expensive structures, such as CannaTrek’s A$160 million facility in Victoria.

“Cannabis on optimal terroir such as Thailand’s plateaus needs no such expensive structures. Its light source is the sun; its temperature and humidity control is the local climate; its greenhouse is the sky,” he  Thailand’s  The cost of building and operating the sun, climate, and sky is zero, giving Thai cannabis investors a much better return on invested capital,” he says.

Cannabis oil… made with whale food?

Another solution that could boost the supply of cannabinoids, possibly cutting down production time by months, is the use of algae, which could be used to express pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids.

Canada’s FSD Pharma has struck a deal with Solarvest BioEnergy to develop a new flexible production platform using the single-celled organisms. Commenting on the tech, Solarvest’s CEO Gerri Greenham said getting cannabinoids from algae, if successful, could cut down on product times.

“A full growth cycle of algae is around a hundred hours whereas the growth of cannabis plants is measured in months,” she said in the statement.

AFN has reached out to regulators & relevant startups in the region for comment on how such methods could be regulated. But for now, it’s unknown if these products would even be allowed entry in the region – bearing in mind that Thailand prohibits foreign investors and imports of cannabis for five years to allow the domestic industry to build up capacity and knowledge.

After all, cannabinoids, such as those found in cannabis oil and hemp, are still prohibited by several countries in APAC, including Singapore, which has recently reiterated its stance.

CannAcubed also hopes to one day develop a strain of cannabis that contains no THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the component in marijuana that gives its trademark ‘high.’ This could possibly help its product sidestep regulations, as it’s the mind-altering (psychoactive) substance that has governments in the region up in arms.

The Greenest Spot in APAC: Australia

What’s often overlooked is the land down under, which gave the green light to medical marijuana in February 2016. The Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) has seen a flurry of pot-related stocks make gains in the last couple of years.

“Australia does have a favorable investor environment with many cannabis companies listed on the ASX, and global cannabis players like MGC Pharma leading the way down there,” says Kaye.

The country is an example of how long it could take to knock down restrictions and deal with demand. Despite it being more than three years since its legalization, patients are reportedly still struggling to access doctors for prescriptions and tap into the medical cannabis supply, according to iCAN.

No doubt the endorsement from Australian actor Olivia Newton-John created a bigger backlog after she told interviewers on “60 Minutes Australia” that the plant greatly relieved her pain symptoms, which arose from breast and bone cancer. She also noted it increased her energy levels and mobility.

Know of a startup that could impact the conversation on cannabis and its related products?
Email me at [email protected].

Join the Newsletter

Get the latest news & research from AFN and AgFunder in your inbox.

Join the Newsletter
Get the latest news and research from AFN & AgFunder in your inbox.

Follow us:

AgFunder Research
Join Newsletter