In recent weeks, Thailand has made headlines around the world as the government announced plans to giveaway cannabis plants to the public. To many of us, such a move might seem bizarre – especially to those of us that live in a country where cannabis remains strictly under lock and key. But is Thailand onto something?

We’re taking a look at the developing cannabis market in Thailand – and in the rest of Asia – including culture, legislation, and public opinion.

Asia – The Birthplace of Cannabis

Cannabis as we know it today is believed to have first grown in Central Asia. Furthermore, recent archaeological discoveries indicate that the first domestication of cannabis also took place in this region some 12,000 years ago. Since then, the crop has gradually spread around the globe, where different societies identified a whole host of uses for the plant. Ancient artefacts show that cannabis was used to produce rope, clothing and weapons, in addition to being used for spiritual, recreational, and medicinal purposes.

Over the last half-century, the majority of countries around the world have outlawed, or at least tightly restricted, the cultivation, supply, and use of all forms of cannabis – even low-THC hemp. Yet today, the world is waking up to the benefits of this crop and the cannabis industry is once again coming to life – including in Asia.

Asia’s Cannabis Industry

When compared to other regions, such as Europe, South America and, particularly, North America, the launch of cannabis business in Asia has been relatively slow. In fact, in many cases, cannabis legislation in this region is notoriously harsh and restricive. But in recent years, one Asian Kingdom in particular has been leading the way for cannabis reforms in Asia – and for many other countries around the world.

Cannabis Culture in Thailand

Despite the crop being outlawed for almost a century, Thailand has retained a strong cultural link to the cannabis plant. Historically, cannabis has been used for traditional Thai massage therapies, herbal medications, and even as an ingredient in cooking. It is not uncommon to come across cannabis growing in the wild across the Kingdom, and some citizens continued to cultivate the crop even during the prohibition period.

Both recreational and wellness users of cannabis have also found Thailand to be an attractive destination for decades.

A Leader in Cannabis Reforms

In 2018, Thailand became the first country in East Asia to legalise medical cannabis. Less than four years later, at the beginning of 2022, the country’s government announced plans to decriminalise the domestic production of cannabis containing less than 0.2% THC – another first for the region. And, in yet another major move, Thailand’s Health Minister recently revealed that the government would be distributing one million free cannabis plants to households across the Kingdom.

The move to delist cannabis as a narcotic in Thailand – a country that has historically taken an extremely hard line on drugs – may present a number of opportunities in Asia, including the development of manufacturing facilities, clinical research, and even cannabis tourism. According to a report by Prohibition Partners, the country’s recreational cannabis market has the potential to be worth $424m by 2024.

But could these changes trigger a domino effect, encouraging other Asian countries to consider similar reforms?

Cannabis Legislation in other parts of Asia

Thailand’s neighbouring countries also prohibit the plant to differing extents. For example, while technically illegal in Cambodia, the law is generally applied relatively leniently. Meanwhile, Malaysia, a country with some of the strictest cannabis laws in the world, only recently abolished the death penalty for those in possession of more than 200g of the plant.

While cannabis prohibition laws may be softening, and some countries have effectively decriminalised the use of recreational cannabis, the legal recreational market remains – for now – dormant. Nonetheless, meaningful campaigns, research, and conversations are occurring throughout the continent, opening up the possibility of further reforms.

Medical Cannabis

To date, very few Asian countries have introduced official legislation legalising medical cannabis. Israel was the first country in the region to do so way back in 1999. It is also a major hub for cannabis research. To date, Cyprus is the only other country in Western Asia to have introduced legal access to medical cannabis. The initial law, introduced in 2017, only granted access to advanced-stage cancer patients; however, in 2019, the law was expanded to other medical conditions.

In East and South-East Asia, Thailand and South Korea both took the step in 2018, followed in 2021 by Malaysia. There are also signs of change in Singapore where, in 2019, the government announced plans to allow the legal sale and use of cannabinoid-based medicines.

Meanwhile, debates are also being had in India, where lawmakers are considering the legalisation of medical cannabis; and in 2018, Sri Lanka saw the opening of its first legal medical cannabis cultivation facility, though the majority of the product is to be exported to the US.

While progress may be relatively slow, Prohibition Partners estimates that the medical cannabis market in Asia could be worth $5.8 billion by 2024.

Hemp Cultivation and CBD

Outside of recreational and medical cannabis markets, hemp is also a key player in Asia’s cannabis market. For example, China is the world’s largest cultivator of hemp, making up half of the global market. Hemp is also grown legally in India and other parts of Asia on a large scale.

The Asian CBD market is also picking up pace. As the largest producer of hemp, China (which maintains strict laws on cannabis) also makes up a major part of the global CBD market. Farmers are also being encouraged to cultivate hemp for the pharmaceutical sector, with the number of high-CBD cultivars on the rise in the country.

Demand for CBD in Japan has risen significantly in recent years, following its legalisation in 2016. Currently, CBD products sold in Japan must contain less than 0.3% THC. Despite this growing popularity, however, medical and recreational cannabis remains illegal in Japan, with little sign that this could change any time soon.

While cannabis laws are definitely being shaken up in Asia, and in particular in Thailand, there may still be a long way to go before the continent is able to compete with other key markets – namely, North America and Europe. That being said, it is likely that Asia will continue to lead the world in hemp production – at least in the short term.