By Marc Davis, for Cityam

Cannabis has long been part of traditional medicine in Asia. In Japan, the earliest traces can be found as far back as 8,000 BC – this may be the earliest ever recorded. 

It is only since the mid-twentieth century that usage has become heavily restricted, due to changing western opinions and the enforcement of UN drug treaties. As a result, attitudes across Asia have now become some of the most conservative in the world. 

However, that stance is beginning to soften. Thailand’s recent legalisation of medical cannabis represents a watershed moment for the continent as they followed the lead of South Korea, who surprised many to become the first east Asian country to legalise medical cannabis in November 2018. 

Experts now predict that other countries in the region will follow suit and legalise the plant for medicinal purposes. Prohibition Partners estimates that by 2024 the legal cannabis market in Asia – which is home to more than half the world’s population – could be worth upwards of $8.5bn.

And it’s estimated that Japan and China could share 90 per cent of this market – even though conservative attitudes in the two countries have become predominant, with laws that are still far stricter than in Europe or the US. This is evidenced by comparing recreational usage, where only 1.4 per cent of people aged between 15 and 64 in Japan have ever tried cannabis, compared to 29 per cent in the UK and 40 per cent in the US and Canada. 

So why is the Japanese government now looking to heed the World Health Organisation’s proposal that cannabis be reclassified to reflect the mounting evidence of its medical benefits? It is not because of any change in Japan’s conservative values – it is instead an economic imperative.