Cannabis legislation has been a hot topic in news cycles for the past few years. With so many countries around the world legalising it for medicinal and recreational use, is there a chance that we will see the trend spread to Asia?
The timeline of cannabis law makes for an interesting read.
The entire 20th century shows a long list of countries banning the plant. Reasoning varies depending on country and who you listen to.
For example, some say cannabis was banned in the US as a way to discriminate against the influx of Mexicans who competed with white Americans for labour jobs in the early 1900s.
The Mexican immigrants brought the tradition of using cannabis – or ‘marihuana’ as they called it – to relax after a hard day working in the fields with them to their new home.
By making it illegal it gave authorities an excuse to search, detain and jail Mexican immigrants. Like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the slavery of African-Americans, it was another method for the United States government to control and discriminate against their non-white population.
Going back to the timeline, the start of the 21st century sees the pendulum start to swing the other way and a wave of decriminalisation and legalisation gathers speed across the globe.
This wave has continued into 2018 and shows no signs of abating.
In October this year Canada was the latest country to legalise cannabis outright after allowing dispensation for medicinal use way back in 2001.
Medicinal use of the plant is also allowed in many countries across the EU, including Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy.
Even the United States has changed tack dramatically since last century.
Once famously regarded as a ‘gateway drug’ that would lead users to addictive, life-threatening drugs like heroin or crack cocaine, it is now allowed for medicinal use in 32 states.
So far 10 states have voted to legalise cannabis completely and the list continues to grow every year.
So What About Asia?
Asian countries for the most part have a notoriously hard line stance when it comes to drug laws, especially in Southeast Asia.
No doubt due in part to their proximity to the Golden Triangle of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar – notorious for their production of narcotics like heroin – countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia enforce a death penalty for drug trafficking.
Cannabis is lumped in together with hard drugs here and no distinction is made. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance.
When it comes to use, that too is of course illegal and carries a mandatory jail sentence, the same is true in East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.
But it seems like this status quo might not last for long.
In 2017, in the US alone, the cannabis industry generated USD 9.7 billion in revenue. Colorado – a state with a population of 5.6 million people, the same as Singapore – accounted for 1.5 billion dollars by itself.
Crucially, all that revenue is taxable. Even more importantly, none of it goes into the hands of drug dealers or criminal gangs. It goes to licensed growers, distributors and the state.
Understandably countries like Thailand are looking at this and probably feel like they are missing out. The Thai government is currently trying to fast-track legislation to legalise cannabis for medicinal and scientific use.
South of the Thai border, the Malaysian government has said they are considering reviewing their laws on cannabis following a public outcry after a 29-year-old was sentenced to death for distributing medicinal cannabis oil.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources Dr Xavier Jayakumar have both called for current drug laws to be looked at and discussed further.
Not So Fast
When it comes to the cannabis conversation, Thailand and Malaysia are idiosyncratic and definitely do not represent a growing trend in Asia.
Likewise the Singapore government has said it will charge its citizens as criminals upon their return to the country if they use cannabis overseas.
Of course, all three countries have less-than-stellar human rights records and are well-known for their draconian laws and Orwellian societies, so this comes as no surprise.
On the other hand Singapore seems happy to fund research into synthetic marijuana compounds.
Some say this sends mixed signals in the city-state where you can be hanged for possessing more than 500 grams of cannabis.
Whatever the case may be, it looks like things are not set to change in a widespread fashion when it comes to the issue of cannabis legislation in Asia. Whether that is for better or worse, only time will tell.
What we can be sure of is that cannabis legalisation and decriminalisation is spreading in the rest of the world, and the countries that have done so are reaping the benefits in medical, social and economic terms.