From Executions to Embrace, Southeast Asia Turns the Page on Pot

From Executions to Embrace, Southeast Asia Turns the Page on Pot

By Skot Thayer


Canada and Uruguay have grabbed the world’s attention with their legalization of marijuana. But it’s in Southeast Asia that the revolution is really spreading. 

By Skot Thayer

Among the opaque greenhouse canopies and verdant fields at the Royal Agricultural Station in the northern Thai village of Pang Da is a parcel of land packed with long stalks bearing instantly recognizable leaves resembling open hands waving in the wind. The field is part of a research project on marijuana and hemp. For the past three decades, it has stood out like a living contradiction in a country and region that have treated the plant more on par with extreme drugs like meth and heroin, executing those convicted of trafficking. That may now soon change.

Amid a concession of defeat in the global war on drugs, much of the international attention has focused on nations in the Western Hemisphere such as Canada and Uruguay turning to the medical and recreational legalization of pot. But away from that glare, countries across Southeast Asia are, like dominoes, shifting away from some of the world’s most draconian drug laws after decades of overcrowded jails, death sentences and expensive, ineffective initiatives. Israel is the only Asian country to date that permits medicinal use of marijuana. 

Thailand’s jails include more than 200,000 inmates detained on drug-related offenses, and trafficking carries the death penalty. But in April, a private firm called the Thai Cannabis Corporation (TCC) announced a tie-up with the public-funded Maejo University and the Royal Project Foundation, a nonprofit, to cultivate 5,000 hectares of cannabis over five years. The TCC is the country’s first cannabis trading firm. The country’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) now plans to kick-start a legal amendment process to allow medicinal cannabis use as soon as May. On Halloween, parliamentarians introduced a draft bill in the Thai military junta’s National Legislative Assembly to legalize medicinal use of the plant, confirms Jet Sirathraanon, chairman of the NLA’s public health committee, before stressing that cannabis would be “for medication only, not for recreation.” In November, the Thai Cabinet approved the bill, meaning it has the government’s support. 

I’ll bring it up because it’s quite crucial.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party, speaking of a medical marijuana legislation 

In Singapore, where chewing gum is illegal and drug offenders face either death or caning along with lengthy prison sentences, the government is — in a bureaucratically byzantine way — hoping to tap into cannabis’ medical benefits as part of a $25 million biotech development plan. It has announced a program to create synthetic versions of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in marijuana, to treat maladies like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.


And in Malaysia, where a British-era law mandates the death penalty for anyone caught with 200 grams or more of cannabis, parliamentarians have announced intentions to introduce a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana.

“I’ll bring it up because it’s quite crucial,” says Nurul Izzah Anwar, vice president of the People’s Justice Party, the leading party in the currently ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.


A man rolling a joint in Thailand.

Source Alamy

For many in the region, these shifting winds represent a return to a traditional comfort with cannabis over centuries while opening up avenues for making serious money from it. Until the 1980s, Thailand was the largest exporter of cannabis to the U.S. and Canada. Decades as a partner in the global war on drugs saw Thailand’s millennium-long relationship with the plant burned to ash. Today, Thailand, with the world’s 20th-largest population, has the eighth-largest number of prison inmates, 70 percent of them for drug offenses.

For Jim Plamondon, vice president of marketing for the TCC, Canada’s legalization of cannabis is a vindication of Thai traditions and a precedent to be followed. “However, it is also dripping with irony and injustice,” he says. According to Plamondon, tens of thousands of Thai cannabis farmers were impoverished by the policies of the same governments that are now held up as bastions of progress and reform for legalization. “Today, Canada is cashing in on its appropriation of Thailand’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry,” he adds.

Malaysia, which just voted to upend more than 60 years of right-wing political rule in May, has begun the process to step back from its zero-tolerance policy after public outrage following the death sentence of 29-year-old Malaysian Muhammad Lukman, who was convicted of distributing medicinal cannabis oil to cancer patients under the harsh Dangerous Drugs Act of 1952. The sentence drew public ire on social media. A petition to reverse the sentence garnered nearly 70,000 signatures. This led the country’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to call for a review of the sentence for Lukman, who is still alive. In a statement, law minister Liew Vui Keong emphatically said that the “death penalty will be abolished. Full stop.”

For sure, the road ahead remains steep and slippery for advocates of legal marijuana in Southeast Asia, even for limited uses. Thailand is emphasizing that it remains opposed to recreational use of marijuana. While approving the bill legalizing medical marijuana, the Thai government added a provision that grants the Public Health Ministry strict oversight on the plant’s use for the next five years. Singapore, while working with cannabis’ chemical compounds, isn’t considering any level of legalization for actual marijuana. A YouGov poll in October showed that 40 percent Singaporeans back medical marijuana, while a majority don’t. And some even within the medical community in Malaysia have struck cautionary notes. Dr. M. Murallitharan, the medical director of the National Cancer Society of Malaysia, has argued that studying pot is a waste of government resources because drugs that provide instant relief are already available to patients. Dr. Ednin Hamzah, CEO of charity organization Hospis Malaysia, has asked the Malaysian government to “tread lightly,” citing divisions within the international medical community on the benefits of pot. 

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A marijuana laboratory was found inside a subdivision house in Antipolo City, Philippines, during a search operation of the police, which is part of the government’s campaign against illegal drugs.

Source Sherbien Dacalanio/Getty

But beyond public pressure, a recognition of failure in the war on drugs and overstuffed prisons, there are also clear economic factors driving the push toward legalizing marijuana. According to Grand View Research in California, the global medical cannabis market will reach $55.8 billion by 2025. Both Thailand and Malaysia have billion-dollar medical tourism industries that could benefit from legal uses of marijuana. The economic lure extends beyond Southeast Asia into China, whose companies hold 309 of the 606 cannabis patents in the world, even though domestically, marijuana is considered a “socially evil” drug. Even in countries like the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has led a brutal crackdown marked by summary executions against drug traffickers, the parliament is debating a law to allow medical marijuana.

A region notorious for extreme punishments for offenders is reforming its image, and once again embracing a plant that has long called Southeast Asia its home.