Asia and Cannabis – What You Need to Know

Many experts believe that the first marijuana plants originated in Asia, specifically from the Central Asia region. Some pieces of evidence suggest that cannabis first appeared and evolved on the Tibetan Plateau about 28 million years ago. From this region, the plant spread across the continent and reached Europe about six million years ago. It reached China about 1.2 million years ago.

The history of marijuana in Asia and its many uses is rich. Ancient people in China began cultivating it about 10,000 years ago, initially just for the oil it produces. The fibers were also used for rope and textiles as hemp is incredibly durable, often being credited with being as strong as steel. Ancient people also weaved the plant’s fibers to make clothing as hemp is lightweight and absorbent, as well as used its seeds as a source of food. When consuming cannabis orally, they soon discovered the plant’s medicinal properties and cannabis quickly became an integral part of ancient medicine.

As for the recreational uses of cannabis, some experts believe that ancient people began using the plant for non-medical purposes as far back as 5,000 years ago. The plant was also used in many ancient rituals and ceremonies. Some burial sites in Central Asia have even shown evidence that the plant had been used as a part of their burial rituals.

History of Cannabis in Various Asian Cultures

There are two major types of Cannabaceae, a type of flowering plant. You have hemp and cannabis. Hemp is nonpsychoactive and is believed to be one of the earliest and oldest types of plants to be cultivated for industrial purposes. Ancient pottery found in China has been found to hold traces of hemp fibers. Hemp has also been found in clothes as well as shoes. 

The history of cannabis as part of rituals and ceremonies dates back thousands of years. Some living in Central Asia would burn cannabis as part of their burial customs, while others in India would and still use it for their religious practices. In Japan, Shinto priests used cannabis leaves to ward off evil spirits, and even today still use hemp to create decorative ropes for their ceremonies.

As for the many historical uses of cannabis as medicine, it has been used to cure various ailments. In Chinese medicine, for example, there are more than 120 uses of cannabis. They would use it to treat menstrual disorders and postpartum problems. They also used it as a painkiller, antibiotic, diuretic, and muscle relaxant.

The various uses of cannabis have made the plant an integral part of ancient Asian cultures, however, the way cannabis was perceived slowly changed when countries started prohibiting its use in the 1800s.

The Legality of Cannabis

Singapore Police escort a man accused of drug trafficking.

Cannabis is now highly illegal in most Asian countries. Getting caught with even a small amount can land you in prison for several years, and in some places, that would be considered a light sentence. In other places, being caught with cannabis can mean a death sentence. In Singapore, for example, anyone suspected of trafficking cannabis can be executed. However, despite this, cannabis remains a popular recreational drug throughout much of Asia, due in part to the legalization in many Western countries, which in turn is slowly softening the respective government’s stance on the plant as well as its potential medical benefits.

Laos, for example, technically bans recreational and medicinal cannabis, but the policies are often unenforced. Locals and even tourists can get away with using cannabis recreationally. In Cambodia, for instance, there are certain restaurants in some cities that you can go to and order what is referred to as a “Happy Pizza”. One can imagine what the secret ingredient might be. Especially when you can order it with ‘extra happy’ and a side of rolling papers. This approach towards weed is not exclusive to South East Asia by any means. A recent report found that several Indian cities are amongst the biggest consumers of recreational cannabis in the world.  The reality is many Asian countries still use cannabis for recreational purposes, it’s just a matter of knowing where to get it, where to use it and how to be safe. There’s isn’t any bud worth risking your life over. 

A ‘happy’ customer leaves one of Cambodia’s infamous ‘Happy Pizza’ vendors.

Changing Attitudes

Interestingly, China is the world’s biggest producer of industrial hemp, despite its incredibly strict consumption laws. It is said that China grows and cultivates half of the world’s legal industrial hemp, which is typically used by the textile industry. With the legalization of hemp and cannabis in many Western countries, global demand is expected to grow meaning more countries like Sri Lanka starting to cultivate and export cannabis to capitalize on the demand for its medicinal uses.

Last year, Thailand and South Korea legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes while Japan is set to begin research studies and clinical trials on Epidiolex, a cannabis-based medicine used in the treatment of epileptic seizures. Three other countries – China, Malaysia, and Singapore – are also considering legalizing the use of cannabis for therapeutic and medicinal reasons. Even in the Philippines, the support for legalizing medical cannabis is growing, despite the current president’s bloody war on drugs.

Of the Asian countries, market predictions tell that Japan and China will be two of the biggest consumers of medical marijuana. Both these countries have an aging population, and they have a high percentage of elderly citizens (33% in Japan and 9.5% in China). By 2050, the elderly population will make up a quarter of Japan’s total population. In China, the elderly population will have increased to 27.5%. This will increase the countries’ healthcare costs, which explains why they are now eyeing legalizing medical cannabis.

Compared to some Western nations, Asian countries may be slow in accepting and legalizing cannabis, both medically and especially recreationally. With that said, the support for medical cannabis is gaining momentum and many Asians no longer view pot as a “bad plant.” 

What We Learned

The history of marijuana as ancient medicine, recreational drug, and a spiritual tool is long and colorful. It was only in the 1800s that many Asian countries began to see cannabis differently. From being viewed as a beneficial herb to a dangerous drug, cannabis quickly became a taboo plant that can land you in prison or worse in Asia.

Today though, we are seeing cannabis reclaim its vibrant and vital history and its place in people’s lives. The wave that started in Western countries is finally reaching Asian shores. Several countries have finally legalized medical cannabis, with more eyeing its legalization soon or at least capitalizing on the global demand for medical cannabis. If you plan on consuming cannabis in Asia, know the local laws and customs of the respective governing bodies and be sure to stay safe. Asia is an unbelievably huge continent and there’s no guarantee that you can get away with smoking cannabis just because you were alright somewhere else. Some countries police only arrest people for cannabis strictly so that they can get a bribe out of the smoker. This is always better than jail. Make safe choices, and enjoy all the beauty that Asia has to offer!

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