The year 2018 will go down in history as the official breakthrough and beginning of marijuana’s global acceptance. Canada’s move to officially legalize recreational marijuana in October 2018 seems to have open the floodgates, as numerous countries have since announced cannabis reform measures. In addition, the United States officially legalizing industrial hemp through the 2019 Farm Bill is another major step forward. However, it is a couple of extremely conservative Asian countries that really seemed to turn heads in the industry, after announcing support for medical cannabis.
The reach of cannabis continues to expand beyond North America and unexpectedly touched South Korea and the Philippines. Known as the Republic of Korea outside the U.S., South Korea has become the first East Asian country to legalize medical cannabis use. Given the country’s conservative stance against cannabis and even recent criticism of Canada’s recreational marijuana legalization, this is a major deal.
In December 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announces that “he will support any legislation to legalize medical marijuana, giving a cannabis bill currently before the country’s House of Representatives a much greater chance of success.” This is a major shift in sentiment from a leader that has been cracking down on drugs and substances over the past many years. While there is no official law yet legalizing medical cannabis, the chances of the current bill being passed greatly improved.
South Korea’s Ripple Effect
It’s a country with especially harsh drug laws, so taking a seemingly small step by allowing only access to cannabidiol (CBD) is major. Though there are other countries in Asia (scant but they exist) with medical cannabis programs, this move may create a ripple effect in South Korea’s neighboring countries.
The Republic of Korea does not have a century-long, racially motivated marijuana prohibition in place. But it does have a solid, outspoken reputation for its harshness surrounding cannabis.
To start, consuming cannabis is a crime punishable by up to 5 years in prison or a fine of about $44,000. South Korean entertainers who had run-ins with the law over a plant are expected to give “apology parades.” Though they tend to serve shorter sentences, lack of compliance could get them banned from performing.
The average Korean citizen who travels is aware that they’re still subject to their country’s laws no matter where they go. This was revealed when Canada legalized recreational cannabis and the South Korean government issued a warning to its citizens on Twitter.
Their government doesn’t monitor citizens with random drug tests upon their return home. However, if the citizen has a criminal past with cannabis or boasts about usage online, Korean big brother’s eye is watching. Where does all this hostility towards marijuana come from? It’s worth noting that it’s not indigenous to the peninsula.
Historically, cannabis was brought over by American soldiers with the onset of the Korean War and by South Korean soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War. It was banned by military dictator Park Chung-hee in the 1970s.
Limited Number of Approved Medical Cannabis Products Available
As for legalization, the only medical cannabis products allowed are Sativex, Epidiolex, Cesamet and Marinol. These prescription CBD products are for cancer-related treatments, epilepsy, symptoms of HIV/AIDs, and treatment of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Citizens who match the qualifying conditions must get a letter from their physician describing their ailment(s). They will then take their documentation to the Korea Orphan Drug Center in Seoul for approval and access to CBD. It is a government-funded organization.
Asian countries like Israel, India and Thailand each have their respective starts to the medical cannabis industry. Introducing legal access to prescription CBD products may open the door for a domestic industry to develop in South Korea.
Now it’s only a waiting game to see what other countries will create similar programs. While there are currently no pure South Korean medical cannabis equity investments available, major players like Aurora Cannabis, Inc. (NYSE: ACB) (TSX: ACB) and Canopy Growth Corporation (NYSE: CGC) (TSX: WEED) are no doubt keeping a close eye on the situation.