Cannabis in Australia: a gateway to Asia?

Cannabis – recreational and medicinal – faces stringent regulation across the Asia Pacific region. Change is filtering through, but slowly, says Thomas Lawrence

Antipodean pot-smokers, rejoice – recreational cannabis is now legal in Australia’s Capital Territory (ACT). Legalisation for medical purposes has proceeded haltingly across the country since 2016; the move from ACT legislators, permitting adults to grow four plants at home and possess up to 50 grams of the drug, throws down the gauntlet to other territories where cannabis remains criminal.

The move also puts Australia head and shoulders above its neighbours in terms of drug liberalisation. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, traffickers can still face the death penalty.

Punishments for personal use are more lenient (merely imposing lengthy prison sentences), but this speaks to an important truth: the Asia Pacific region is perhaps the world’s most unfriendly when it comes to cannabis. All this despite the fact it’s where the relationship between cannabis and humans was first cemented sometime between 1500 and 2000 BC. So does liberalisation in Australia herald a change of course? And, if so, what does this mean for foodservice?

Australia: blazing a trail or making a hash of it?

Cannabis legalisation is proceeding unevenly in Australia. Liberalisation in ACT contrasts with the reluctance to legalise even for medical purposes in South Australia and the Northern Territories, and all this is overcast by strict, contradictory federal legislation. This dissonance is a mirror for a continent that isn’t quite as draconian as a first glance might suggest.

Just look at China. Once prohibiting even hemp cultivation due to the crop’s trace quantities of THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis), the country’s wily bureaucrats have spotted an opportunity. Although CBD (THC’s blameless, non-psychoactive cousin, sweeping European and American health stores for its reputed medicinal benefits) remains illegal, permits are being waved through for investment firms to cultivate cannabis. Derived chemicals are highly prized in foreign markets, and Chinese authorities are keen to cash in.

Singapore is another good example. Possession alone can win you a one-way ticket to a decade in jail. Not a hugely cannabis-friendly environment, you might say – but that hasn’t stopped CannAcubed growing the plant on an industrial scale. They’ve managed to skirt round harsh regulations by basing themselves in a Chinese province with lax cannabis laws, and by producing a strain with relatively low THC levels. Business is booming: they’re exporting CBD to markets outside Singapore and selling hemp textiles internally.

Even in Malaysia there’s evidence of groundwork is being laid for a more enthusiastic embrace of cannabis. Finance firm Eden Empire has raised a multimillion dollar investment to buy up retail stores in British Columbia, with a view to acquiring licenses from local authorities to sell cannabis. Changing attitudes towards cannabis in the country – let alone full on legalisation for foodservice purposes – remains a long way off, but the fact firms are being allowed to dabble in so illicit an industry at all represents a sea change.

Has Asia got the munchies?

This last point is crucial. Attitudes towards cannabis may well be softening in the upper echelons of Asia’s centralised political systems. Canada or US-style liberality, with all the weird and wonderful delicacies and infusions that restaurateurs and caterers have dreamt up alongside it, is a different bowl of pot.

Aside from ACT, laws against culinary and recreational marijuana remain in force nearly everywhere. So why, according to a Fior Markets report on cannabis beverages, is Asia Pacific one of the most “rapidly growing regions”?

Its sheer size is one factor. Mumbai is one of the top pot-smoking conurbations on the planet. With a population of over 18 million, this isn’t to be sniffed at. History, however, is key. While cannabis grows freely across the continent, India offers another rich example of its importance. The nation’s relationship with cannabis stretches into the distant past and holds a sacred significance. The issue is that pot consumption exists in a legal grey area – growing the plant is permitted, but certain preparations are outlawed. With a pre-existing culture of cannabis-based food products, legal murkiness could be all that stands in the way of India becoming a weed juggernaut on the scale of the booming billion dollar industry in America.

Asia’s “soft power” in the burgeoning global cannabis market offers a foundation for future success. Just look at the Miami-based Bhang Corporation. Now a globally recognised producer of THC-infused edibles, it takes its name from a cannabis paste-based delicacy from India. If India and its neighbours succeed in leveraging this cultural clout for commercial ends, it could become a global hub for marijuana adventurists in foodservice, hospitality and beyond.

This, however, is a big “if”. Demography and history could well be calculated to make Asia a flourishing cannabis haven somewhere down the line. Cultural cues from India and regulatory cues from Australia will nudge this process along. Nevertheless, Europe and America are the go-to regions for early adopters. Ambitious entrepreneurs are best served following CannAcubed and Eden Empires’ example, pursuing opportunities in these markets and building expertise. Cannabis and foodservice could one day be bedfellows in Asia. But for now, despite its fertile soil, green shoots remain elusive.

Thomas Lawrence

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