Cannabis has long been considered harmful by those who see it as addictive and damaging to health.
Contrary to what most people think, cannabis – also known as marijuana, weed, hemp and a myriad of other names – can have health benefits and many commercial uses, according to medical academics and industry insiders.
By stressing the plant’s medical and commercial values in a cannabis conference in Hong Kong on Thursday, experts hope to further open up markets and boost investment in the industry in Asia, where attitudes towards cannabis are still skeptical – but changing quickly.
Hemp opportunity in Asia
“In China and most parts in Asia, hemp has traditionally been used for its fiber and other uses such as a source of biofuel. Its seed is also a nutritious food,” Mr Brian Sheng, General Partner of Arcview Group, talks of the “Hemp Opportunity” in Asia.
Cannabis and hemp come from the same plant, but the latter has no psychoactive properties.
While China has made cannabis illegal since 1985, the country is both the world’s biggest producer and largest consumer of hemp. In 2017, Chinese domestic consumer sales of hemp were estimated at $1.1 billion, over one-third of the global market.
“Given the role of cannabis in traditional Chinese medicine, the market’s familiarity with natural wellness products, and an immense and ageing population, the country could see unparalleled consumer interest for the hemp-derived cannabinoid,” says New Frontier Data in a report.
According to the market intelligence firm, hemp can also be used to develop different products, such as cannabis-infused cosmetics, hemp composites to power cars and hemp biofuel. It can also be used to clean toxic soil and groundwater of heavy metals.
All these by-products present an opportunity in the region, the firm believes.
Meanwhile, medical experts such as Dr Jeffrey Chen, Founder and Executive Director of UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, stress that cannabis has medical potential.
“Cannabinoids [are] useful in … ischemic, age-related, inflammatory, autoimmune, neurodegenerative, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” he citing a U.S. medical research. He is a leading researcher in UCLA’s Cannabis Research Institute, that has over 37 professors and supports research to promote intelligent policy making and regulation..
Dr Chen also says there is strong evidence that cannabis is effective in addressing chronic pain, nausea, weight loss, multiple-sclerosis and epilepsy.
While acknowledging cannabis has harms and indirect effects such as causing schizophrenia, lower birth weight (when used by pregnant women) and lower IQ, he argues that cannabis is not as harmful as other substances.
“When tobacco and alcohol directly kill 480,000 and 80,000 people per year respectively in the U.S., cannabis has killed zero directly and physically in recorded history,” Dr Chen says.
Cannabis-derived medicine currently available on the market in the United States include FDA regulated Marinol to control symptoms of nausea and Epidiolex to treat epilepsy.
Slow legalisation in Asia
Given the plant’s medical effects, some 30 countries around the world have already legalized the use of cannabis as a medicine. They include Canada, Israel, Australia, Argentina and a number of European countries.
While western countries are becoming increasingly cannabis-friendly by legalizing the plant for medical and even recreational use (including Canada), Asian countries are currently not allowing that to happen. However, some of them are open to cannabis for medical use.
Thailand and Malaysia are the forerunners in the region. Thailand is on the way to become the region’s first to legalize medical cannabis by May 2019; the Malay government is considering it; and the Singaporean authorities are also researching in this area.
The same development, however, has yet to be seen in Hong Kong, China, South Korea or Japan.
“It’s not about the plant. It’s about disruption,” says Mr Dave Pryce, Vice President of International Market Expansion and Government Relations at Canopy Growth. “Government doesn’t like changes, so we need to put patients first and explain the benefits to allow the government to understand.”
He also calls for a global discussion around standards. “We need standards to classify a product. Then we can deliver the highest quality products and ensure safety in all production processes,” Mr Pryce says.
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