Marijuana is still stigmatized in Asia but signs of change are there

Despite growing acceptance of cannabis use throughout the world, marijuana remains taboo and criminalized in most parts of Asia — mainly due to the stigma surrounding it.

It is estimated that Asia’s medicinal cannabis market is currently worth around $5.8 billion, the number could grow exponentially as the plant becomes more accepted.


Thailand’s had a long relationship with cannabis. The plant appears to have been introduced to Thailand from India, hence the similarly used term “ganja” in both languages.

Marijuana had been used as medicine in Thailand for centuries before the possession, sale, and use of cannabis was criminalized in 1934. It wasn’t until last year when deputy prime minister and health minister Anutin Charnvirakul started championing the return of this highly popular plant that wider acceptance became in vogue.

In 2019, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to allow for the growth and consumption of medical marijuana, unveiling its first legal cannabis greenhouse in February 2019. Medical cannabis, an ambitious market expansion goal championed by Anutin, is an industry poised to grow more than US$660 million by 2024.

Despite these many advancements, there is still a long way to go. Cannabis is still listed as a class-5 narcotic under the Narcotics Act of 1969-79. Possession of the plant for recreational purposes is still criminalized and tough penalties remain. Possession of cannabis in Thailand is only allowed and legal through proper approval and certification.


Cannabis in Singapore, just like Thailand, was likely introduced by immigrant laborers from India. It was banned in 1870 during the British colonial period. Singapore is long known for its staunch stance against drugs and cannabis use.

But in January 2018, Singapore announced that it would start developing chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant as a part of a US$19 million investment into synthetic biology. This initiative is intended to push Singapore’s “bio-based economy”, or biotechnology, and grow new industries to create jobs in a sustainable way. Last year, the country signaled that it would allow imports of pharmaceutical products containing certain cannabis extracts under specific conditions and circumstances

However, possession or use of cannabis in Singapore is still heavily penalized. Those found guilty of cannabis possession can face up to 10 years in prison with a possible fine of 20,000 Singapore dollars, as well as caning. Trafficking of more than 500 grams may result in a death penalty.


The use of cannabis in Indonesia was banned in 1927 during the Dutch colonial period.

Consumption, possession, and sale of cannabis and marijuana remain illegal in Indonesia. Those found guilty could face a minimum sentence of four years in prison and a fine.


Cannabis has been cultivated in Japan since the pre-Neolithic period, but became illegal in 1948 under American post-war rule.

In early 2019, Japan approved clinical trials for Epidiolex, a cannabis compound found in CBD extract for oral solution used in treating epileptic patients. With an aging population, Japan is likely going to become a big consumer in medical cannabis.

However, possession and use of cannabis for recreational purposes is punishable by up to five years in prison. Cultivation, sale, and transport of the plant is punishable by up to seven to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine.


Cannabis in Taiwan is illegal and listed as a category 2 narcotic by Narcotics Hazard Prevention Act. Possession of cannabis can result in up to three years of imprisonment. Cultivation and trafficking of the plant can result in at least seven years in prison.

South Korea

Following in Thailand’s footsteps, South Korea officially legalized medical cannabis in March 2019. The goal is to expand treatment options for patients with epilepsy, chronic pain, and other medical conditions.

Despite the reform, recreational cannabis remains strictly forbidden by law. Those found guilty are punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to US$44,000.


Cannabis has been illegal in China since 1985. According to the Law on Pulic Security Administration Punishments, marijuana smokers can be detained for 10 to 15 days and fined a maximum of 2,000 yuan.

However, hemp, a species of cannabis, is still grown in the country and historically has been used for fibre, as well as ritual purposes within Taoism.

In 2019, two of China’s 34 regions have started cultivating cannabis to produce CBD, the non-intoxicating compound for medicinal and beauty purposes.


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