Why is Asia divided on a green light for medical marijuana?

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Thailand, the sole Asian country to legalise cannabis for medical use, is so keen on educating locals about the drug’s benefits that tourism and sports minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn this month unveiled a medical marijuana tour that will cover eight provinces, set to kick off next year. But not too far away, in Singapore, top officials are singing a starkly different tune.
Law and home affairs minister K. Shanmugam has in recent weeks taken to social media on multiple occasions to stress the island nation’s zero-tolerance stance on drugs – marijuana included. Earlier this month, he told local media Singapore had to “hold the line” on the issue and needed to persuade the international community “based on rationality and science”.

The issue of cannabis legalisation around the world was once again thrust into the spotlight this month, following a vote by the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs to reclassify it one that is less dangerous and has medical or therapeutic benefits.

On December 2, the commission’s 53 member states voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. There were 27 nations in favour – including the 
United States, India, Nepal and Thailand – while among the 25 in opposition were Russia, China and Japan, as well as one abstention.

Thailand health minister plants cannabis seedlings as nation chases medical marijuana market

Experts said the result could prompt greater medical research and legalisation efforts around the world. But it also illustrated a separate issue: Asian nations are starkly divided on their views towards marijuana use, a not entirely surprising outcome given the efforts made to recognise its benefits in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand on Wednesday said it would no longer classify cannabis plants and extracts as a Category 5 narcotic – though cannabis buds containing high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, will remain illegal.

Reports also pointed to potential diplomatic pressures at play, including India’s decision to vote alongside the US on the issue despite the Asian nation’s narcotics bureau having previously ramped up efforts to question and arrest celebrities – including television personality Bharti Singh and actress Deepika Padukone – for alleged possession of narcotics.

Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, who has advocated the decriminalisation of marijuana, took a dig at his critics in a social media post. “I was attacked for a policy recommendation to legalise it two years ago,” he wrote. “Now, even as the [Narcotics Control Bureau] arrests Bollywood stars for cannabis possession, India has joined a majority in the United Nations Drugs Commission to delist it as a dangerous drug. Ah well!”

Conversely, Russia, which opposed the vote, banded together with 28 other countries to condemn the outcome. The letter – signed by the likes of Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia – raised “deep concern” that the vote could be interpreted as indicating that cannabis was no longer regarded as harmful to health.

This was similar to the points raised by Singapore’s permanent representative to the UN, Umej Bhatia, who cited the “lack of adequate and robust evidence” to support the recommendations. Instead, he highlighted research detailing the adverse effects of cannabis use, including impairments to respiratory and cognitive function.

China’s delegate, Zhang Jun, likewise said that despite the vote, the country would strictly control cannabis to protect its citizens from “harm and abuse”.

A UN commission has voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Photo: AP
A UN commission has voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Photo: AP

‘MORE AND BETTER RESEARCH’

But Gloria Lai of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a London and Bangkok-headquartered network of institutions that promotes open debates on drug policy, said the reclassification of cannabis was “primarily to acknowledge its value for medical use”. Usage of the drug for medical purposes has skyrocketed in recent years, and demand has risen for products containing cannabis derivatives, including cannabidiol.

Khalid Tinasti, director of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said before the vote, researchers and clinicians had “to go through enormous administrative and financial hurdles to get access to cannabis and research it, since it was deemed [to have] no therapeutic value”.

“I would confirm that the removal of cannabis from Schedule IV will allow for more and better research on cannabis and its ingredients,” added Tinasti, who is also a visiting fellow at the Global Studies Institute at the University of Geneva.

He said that while the over-commercialisation of cannabis had been an issue in markets where recreational use was legal, the December vote had focused solely on its medical purposes: “It is about the use of certain ingredients within the regulations of health systems, under the supervision of health authorities, and in a relationship between a doctor and a patient.”

This way, Tinasti said, even though there could be a handful of private companies lobbying hard to gain more access to a possible future market, this should not undermine the science that had proved the effectiveness of medical cannabis in treating conditions such as sclerosis or seizures related to epilepsy.

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This form of treatment is more widely adopted in Western countries. In Singapore, for example, the green light for cannabis-based medication has only been granted in one case – last year, a young girl who suffered from a drug-resistant form of epilepsy and had failed to respond to other therapies was eventually given a cannabinoid pharmaceutical, according to local media reports.

Tinasti said he hoped that with greater understanding of the medical uses of marijuana, Singapore, a “pragmatic and scientific country”, could “control diversion from the legal health system to the illegal market” and change its position on medical cannabis, in the way Thailand had done.

Lai from the International Drug Policy Consortium described Singapore as “more representative of an extreme position against scientific evidence”, and noted that three Asian countries – India, Nepal and Thailand – had voted in favour of reclassifying cannabis.

Even though Indonesia was among those who signed the Moscow-led opposing statement, she pointed out the “powerful discussions” there about the need for medical cannabis, citing the request submitted by three mothers to the Constitutional Court last month demanding a judicial review of its narcotics law so their children who suffered from pneumonia and epilepsy could receive access to the drug.

Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul touches a cannabis plant during the opening of a cannabis clinic in Bangkok. Photo: AFP
Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul touches a cannabis plant during the opening of a cannabis clinic in Bangkok. Photo: AFP

LEGALISATION PROGRESS

Meanwhile, other countries in the region are making some progress regarding cannabis legalisation. Harish Kumar, who heads pro-marijuana group 
Malaysia Awareness Society, said local authorities had recently hinted medical usage of marijuana was a possibility in the future.

He quoted an official from the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency who in October said it was now allowed to be researched by doctors in hospitals or universities, and that it would be classified as “traditional medicine”. This meant that the raw form of the plant could be used as a form of medication, he said.

But Kumar also struck a note of caution given the volatile Malaysian political landscape. “We have yet to hear from the current health minister about this matter, but pray that he would start with decriminalisation followed by medication and finally, recreational [use],” he said.

In Thailand, Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, founder and chief executive of cannabis-focused consulting firm Elevated Estate, said when the drug was first legalised for medical purposes in February last year, there were about 20 government medical centres that provided cannabis products, but now there were more than 300 such facilities.

She added that the Thai health ministry had sought to remove the plant from the list of narcotics in 2019, but this had been put on the back burner due to the anti-government protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bottles of extracted cannabis oil displayed during a press conference at Thailand's Health Ministry in Bangkok. Photo: AP
Bottles of extracted cannabis oil displayed during a press conference at Thailand's Health Ministry in Bangkok. Photo: AP

Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said Thailand‘s UN vote earlier this month was a sign of support for the legalisation of medical marijuana, and he was “not at all” surprised as it was in line with the country’s gradual process to allow research on the medicinal use of marijuana. “We Thais tend to see marijuana as a rather ‘soft’ and ‘natural’ drug. Some Thai villagers put marijuana in their soup and curry to enhance the taste,” he said.

Chalermpalanupap added that he felt that the vote would not result in a diplomatic tussle with China, but a more immediate concern was how it would affect anti-narcotics cooperation among member states in the 

. “They have already failed to bring about a ‘Drug-Free Asean’ by the year 2020. Now, different attitudes towards marijuana among them might impede their regional cooperation efforts in this crucial area.”

But what of the countries who opposed the UN vote? Faizal Abdul Rahman, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said if like-minded countries wanted to object further, they could rally minilateral efforts in law enforcement cooperation and information exchanges to monitor how the reclassification would affect the global trade in narcotic drugs.

They could also cooperate to understand how the UN development would affect public sentiment on drugs and devise better messaging to discourage lackadaisical attitudes about substance abuse, he said.

Bilahari Kausikan, the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s foreign ministry, noted that the resolution was not binding and said the UN vote was used as an “excuse or cover” for nations that did not have the political will to confront the issue of marijuana use.

“Decriminalisation, which is essentially what the UN vote did, in effect means that supporters of the vote have given up that fight,” he said.

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