Currently, cannabis, better known as “weed,” is illegal in every Southeast Asian country. Across the region, penalties for cannabis use, production, and trafficking are very serious and can result in assignments to rehab for several years, long-term imprisonment, and even death penalties. These disproportionate consequences can be very harmful to local populations, especially since Southeast Asia is one of the world’s largest drug sources, meaning that it is more easily accessible than in other regions of the world. However, slow progress has been made, such as in the case of Thailand, showing the rest of the region that weed can become legalized and that cannabis products can be safely controlled for consumption, and for its medicinal benefits.

Thailand Decriminalizes Weed

On January 25, 2022, Thailand decriminalized cannabis, becoming not only the first Southeast Asian country, but the first country in all of Asia, to do so. As well, in 2020, Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country to decriminalize cannabis for medicinal purposes and now has taken a step further by removing it off of the Ministry of Health’s list of controlled drugs. However, there is still uncertainty around its recreational use, even by police and law officials. 

It is also important to note that Thailand “decriminalized” rather than “legalized” cannabis, meaning that unregulated use can still lead to minor punishments, such as fines. Moreover, there are still restrictions placed on cannabis use; for example, seeds and buds of cannabis plants, which have stronger concentrations and are commonly used recreationally, are still on the list of controlled substances. Still, this development in Thailand is significant in the progress towards legalizing cannabis, growing the cannabis industry, and further developing technology that utilizes cannabis for medical benefits.

The History of Drug Trade in Southeast Asia

It was no doubt a surprise that Thailand decriminalized cannabis, especially considering Southeast Asia’s strong taboo regarding it. So why exactly is weed illegal throughout Southeast Asia, and why has it garnered such a bad reputation? One of the main reasons is Southeast Asia’s troubled past and present with drugs. In the 19th century, opium, a highly addictive narcotic extracted from poppy plants, was widely available across China. As more people discovered opium and became addicted to it, China grew concerned about the resulting economic and social decline, which led to the start of the Opium Wars. While China is not a part of Southeast Asia, China has a profound influence on Southeast Asia politically, economically, and socially. Therefore, the general illegal status of drugs in Southeast Asia can be partly attributed to this, with nations attempting to learn from the legacy of addiction and drug use in China.

Southeast Asia is also home to the “Golden Triangle,” an area that borders Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, which is notorious for being one of the world’s largest drug trafficking areas. It is a region of high drug production, especially of opium, methamphetamine, and heroin; in 2019, a profit of over $71 billion was reported from selling drugs in this region alone. Cannabis is also one of the products produced in this area, with around 12,000 cannabis sprouts planted there. Cannabis also tends to get lumped together with the more dangerous drugs produced in that area, and as a result, is highly prohibited in Southeast Asia.

Stereotypes about Cannabis

Cannabis’ history, along with other social factors, has created a lot of harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about the drug in Southeast Asian society. For example, because highly-addictive drugs involved in drug trafficking such as heroin and opium can lead to dangerous long-term effects such as organ damage, many people believe that weed is just as dangerous. However, using cannabis is not as dangerous or addictive compared to other drugs and alcohol. Marijuana has been noted by many scientists to be safer than most drugs, and can even help with certain health conditions. Even though research on the potential benefits of cannabis has been widely publicized, it’s still not recognized by many Southeast Asians and policymakers, and as a result, cannabis remains illegal in Southeast Asian countries as a socially-unacceptable drug. 

What The Future Holds

Even though cannabis continues to be illegal throughout Southeast Asia, there have been some other developments that signal change for the future. For example, Singapore announced in 2018 that it would start incorporating chemicals found in cannabis in the development of biotechnology, and imported cannabis pharmaceuticals. Thailand, of course, decriminalized cannabis and even announced the creation of a cannabis greenhouse. Myanmar also introduced amendments to its laws to eliminate imprisonment penalties for minor possession of drugs. Even these small steps signal that cannabis may soon be on the road to decriminalization or legalization. 

Why would it be beneficial for all nations, not just those in Southeast Asia, to legalize weed in the first place? For starters, under a legal, regulated system where cannabis is marked as an industrial product and not a taboo substance, the risks of laced weed, such as those with fentanyl, a leading cause of drug overdose, will be much better managed. It can also provide opportunities for open discussions about drug use among families with children, which could reduce teenage drug abuse. Moreover, legalizing cannabis can translate into other federal benefits as well, which could defund drug cartels and organized crime, which pose a much higher risk to civilians than the consumption of cannabis in a regulated industry. 

In order to propel the legalization of cannabis in Southeast Asian countries, many steps can be taken. For example, Southeast Asian governments should be educated on the medical benefits of cannabis, which include helping with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and pain relief. In addition, young people should be educated on safe and controlled cannabis use to help reduce drug abuse in teenagers, which can also help reduce youth drug-related crimes.

By advocating for a regulated system under which cannabis is deemed legal and controlled for safety, progress can be made in illuminating the benefits of cannabis and disproving harmful, incorrect stereotypes and beliefs.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Light Naing

Light (he/they) is a second-year Media, Information and Technoculture student at Western University. He was born and raised in Myanmar, but immigrated to Canada in order to escape the political turmoil...