ASIA’s historically strict approach to cannabis legislation is ‘on the cusp of revolution’ as a wave of re-liberalisation across the region is set to present significant opportunities for international investment.
According to the latest figures from Prohibition Partners’ recently released Asian Cannabis Report: 2nd Edition, medical and non-medical cannabis sales could skyrocket to more than 10 times their current size by 2026 to an estimated $140 million.
Following the pandemic, countries such as Thailand and India are spearheading the transformation of attitudes towards cannabis, as regional governments and businesses begin to recognise the economic and medical potential of the cannabis industry.
While these two countries are expected to be the key players in the emerging Asian cannabis industry, other markets like Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Nepal are expected to legalise unlicensed medical cannabis imminently, while more regions like Japan and South Korea are seeing rapid growth in CBD and the legalisation of licensed pharmaceutical products like Epidiolex.
Thailand is the pioneer for cannabis liberalisation and sensible drug policy in Asia. It is currently the leader in the region and this is expected to be the case into the near future. The country legalised medical cannabis in 2018 and since then the government has implemented supportive policies and information campaigns which have meant a rapid rise in the number of prescriptions in the country.
Since legalisation of medical cannabis, a string of further major decriminalisation efforts have followed suit, culminating in the removal of cannabis flower from the list of narcotic substances in June 2022, and the dissemination of 1m cannabis plants for home growth throughout the country to support local cultivation efforts, especially for medical usage.
The removal of cannabis flowers from the narcotics list has allowed for the creation of a market for adult-use cannabis through a legal loophole. This means Thailand currently has a legally ‘grey’ adult-use market, in which recreation sales online and in person are common though may soon be clamped down on.
After much debating and iterations, the Cannabis and Hemp Bill which would provide the basis for further protections for non-medical usage is now being reconsidered and reformulated, leaving the legal-framework of its adult-use industry open to interpretation.
This means Thailand currently has a legally ‘grey’ adult-use market, in which recreation consumption is technically illegal, but allowed for medical and industrial purposes, as well as home ownership, leaving the door open for a commercial market to be established if these ambiguous laws are navigated carefully.
According to Prohibition Partners’ Business Insights into the Thai Cannabis Market Report Thailand will see sales of $1 million in 2022, and that this could grow to $24 million by 2026.
This growth could be supported by Government plans to create a ‘Cannabis Sandbox’ enabling tourists to smoke recreationally in designated areas.
The plan sought to play to Thailand’s strengths in the health and wellness sector, opening up opportunities for businesses to capitalise on the nearly 30m tourists who plan to visit Thailand for health and wellness purposes this year.
In an optimistic scenario where fully legal sales begin by early 2024, Prohibition Partners estimate sales could reach $8m in their first year, then rapid growth by over 100% in the following years.
Thai medical business TEERA Groups CEO Nadon Chaicharoen said: “There is certainly a huge opportunity for Thailand; cannabis is a native plant, the cost of production is low with no shortage of labour and natural resources, it is an established medical hub and tourist destination for Asia and it has a strong capital market with great access to financial tools.
“Thailand can strengthen, not only our agricultural and manufacturing capabilities, but it can expand the cannabis-led herbal ecosystem for pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals, food and drinks.”
Although less than 3% of India’s population are thought to use cannabis, the sheer size of its population means that this figure represents a potential market five times the size of the Canadian market, at around 21 million people per year.
Some 70% of India’s 1.4bn citizens are thought to suffer from stress or anxiety disorders, leaving many who have no access to psychiatrists to turn to alternative plant-based medicines such as cannabis.
India already has a strong cultural affinity to cannabis, as it features in some traditional medical formulae and is a central part of the Holi festival as a part of the widely consumed bhang drink. India’s provinces have autonomy over much of their cannabis regulations, and some are now taking pioneering steps by allowing for cultivation of medical cannabis within their borders.
Early in 2022, the Indian Government clarified that under national legislation, medical cannabis cultivation and trade is technically permissible in the country though the process for obtaining permission for this has not been explained clearly. In 2020 India voted to remove cannabis and derived products from the schedule IV of The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a recognition at the governmental level of the therapeutic potential of cannabis and relatively low risk of danger to consumers and patients.
The prevalence of the traditional usage of bhang and chara, which are legal in some Indian provinces like Uttar and Pradesh, and shifting attitudes towards cannabis amongst India’s middle classes mean that, according to Prohibition Partners, ‘India is the largest country in Asia whose chance of legalising adult-use cannabis in the next five to ten years remains a distinct possibility.’
The free-to-download The Asian Cannabis Report: 2nd Edition can be accessed here, alongside the Premium Packages for exclusive market sizing information, and the Business Insights into the Thai Cannabis Market Report.