Thailand and Japan profit, Taiwan marijuana trade falters | Pharmaceuticals

Taipei, Taiwan – Joyce Wu has always been curious about cannabis.

Wu tried it a few times in Taiwan, where she grew up, but didn’t like the effect, and using it illegally increases anxiety and makes the experience less enjoyable. It wasn’t until she came to the U.S. in 2015 that she felt safe enough to try and discover the relaxing effects cannabis could have.

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, Wu found that marijuana was the only thing that helped ease her nervousness. She wants to share its benefits with her friends and family in Taiwan.

“I watched a lot of news, and I wondered if my friends and family in Taiwan would be in the same situation as me,” Wu told Al Jazeera. “I’m super anxious. I want to help them and show them that some herbs — not like drugs — can help them with their anxiety.”

In June of the same year, Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare issued guidelines clarifying that cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in the cannabis plant, is legal for medical and personal use in Taiwan—as long as it does not exceed 100,000 parts (0.001%) THC Cannabidiol, a psychoactive compound that gets marijuana users high.

Warning: CBD is classified as a drug in Taiwan, which means it is only available with a doctor’s prescription. Since there are no domestic pharmaceutical companies selling CBD products, consumers must purchase or apply to import CBD products from other countries abroad.

In this gray area, Wu saw an opportunity to start a small CBD business called WeHemppy out of her New York home to cater to Taiwanese consumers. She spent months researching CBD brands and lab testing products to make sure they didn’t exceed Taiwan’s THC limit, which is several times lower than the U.S. standard.

“I thought it was a good idea because no one was talking about CBD,” Wu said. “It’s also our job to educate people that it’s safe and it doesn’t make you dizzy or high. So, on our website and on social media, we’re trying to create an vibe that’s more cosmetic.”

Wu’s business is part of a small but growing industry catering to Taiwan’s demand for CBD, operating from overseas bases in countries including the UK, US, Thailand and Japan.

Despite Taiwan’s reputation for progressive stance on LGBTQ rights and the death penalty, Taiwan’s government is staunchly opposed to marijuana legalization (Jordyn Haime/Al Jazeera)

While Taiwan has positioned itself as one of the most progressive places in Asia on issues like LGBTQ rights, it remains staunchly conservative when it comes to cannabis, even as the rest of the region slowly begins to loosen restrictions.

Cannabis is classified as a Class 2 narcotic, along with coca, amphetamines and certain opioids.

Under Taiwan’s Drug Harm Prevention Act, those found guilty of using marijuana face up to three years in prison. Collections intended to be sold carry a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to NT$5 million ($164,000).

In recent years, the island has doubled down on its anti-drug stance. In 2021, Wu Yiming, director of the Protection Bureau, said that Taiwan “must declare war on marijuana.” In March, authorities launched the largest marijuana raid in history in Taoyuan, confiscating more than 4,000 plants worth NT$1.26 billion (US$41 million).

Still, some Taiwanese are calling for change. Taipei’s annual marijuana legalization rally drew thousands of supporters on Saturday — one of the largest rallies in the event’s history. Some suppliers advertise the availability of CBD products from e-commerce businesses in the US and Thailand.

At least 100 police officers patrolled the event area and filmed protesters chanting “Legalize marijuana!” as they marched toward Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. and “End Discrimination!”.

In response to this incident, the island’s Ministry of Justice reiterated its “resolute opposition to the legalization of marijuana.” In a statement, the ministry said the government would “do everything possible to suppress the spread of any drugs and work with the public to maintain a drug-free home”.

Taiwan’s government has aligned itself with the U.N.’s position that marijuana use causes physical and mental health problems — though many countries and U.S. states have eased restrictions in recent years based on studies claiming the safety of marijuana for medical use.

Advocates say there is no reason for Taiwan to change the law because it remains a minor issue among the public.

Politicians “need traditional support,” Zoe Lee, a Taipei-based lawyer who handles marijuana cases and advocates for legalization, told Al Jazeera. “The topic is too hardcore and too progressive for their voters to pick up.”

Lawyer Zoe Lee says Taiwanese politicians are reluctant to touch the topic of marijuana legalization (Jordyn Haime/Al Jazeera)

Through local outreach and her podcast on The Weeds, Lee has worked to bring cannabis into the public eye. She also chairs the Taiwan Green Party and is running for the Legislative Yuan in 2020 and the city council in 2022, with marijuana reform at the center of her campaign.

Both runs were unsuccessful, although she said they were primarily aimed at raising awareness of the problem.

Taiwan’s conservative approach to drugs can be traced back to the classroom. Taiwanese are taught marijuana in school from a young age, viewing it as an entry-level drug that can easily lead to more serious drug habits and violent crimes.

“A lot of the fear comes from a lack of understanding about these substances,” Lai Yanhe, a doctor and cannabis advocate living in Kaohsiung, told Al Jazeera.

“For an average Taiwanese, if you ask them about marijuana, they’ll take it as poison… the word ‘poison’ is poison, so it’s a poisonous substance. And in English, drug or substances with more neutral connotations.”

Lai has been gathering signatures for a petition in support of the legalization of medical marijuana, calling on other doctors to show their support. So far, it has only received 83 signatures, a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of doctors in Taiwan.

Showing public support on such an issue — especially at a large hospital — could damage a doctor’s reputation, Lai said.

Barriers to legal products like CBD only add to the stigma. Lee and Wu advise Taiwanese buyers to prepare the proper paperwork — a doctor’s prescription and an approved import application — before attempting to import products into Taiwan.

Another option is to take a risk and hope that the package doesn’t get checked by the authorities.

“I strongly recommend that people get a prescription from their doctor. But I know it’s not practical because it’s hard for Taiwanese doctors to understand CBD at this time,” Wu said. “99% of doctors don’t know what CBD is.”

As for the import form, Wu said about 90 percent of customer applications would be rejected without a prescription.

Taiwan’s General Administration of Customs told Al Jazeera it approved “more than 100” import applications last year, but did not record the number of unsuccessful applications.

Attorney Lee said one of her clients tried to import CBD products from a foreign company that falsely claimed the products did not contain THC. The product was confiscated at customs and the customer now faces 10 years in prison for drug trafficking.

Lee said there was no “winning” in these cases, only the best possible outcome — which meant pleading guilty for a reduced sentence.

“We need to really change that as soon as possible. So that’s part of why I’m running for election next year,” she said.

Lull Kyoto in 2021 becomes the first CBD cafe to open in Kyoto, Japan (Jordyn Haime/Al Jazeera)

In Japan, in 2021 Lull Kyoto became the first CBD cafe to open in the city of Kyoto, joining a growing number of shops and coffee shops in the country.

The sale and use of cannabis buds and leaves is still strictly prohibited in Japan, and like Taiwan, the penalties are severe. But thanks to a legal loophole, the consumption and import of CBD is legal — as long as it doesn’t contain THC.

Japan’s cannabis industry has exploded as CBD has grown in popularity: Analysts estimate legal cannabis products could be worth $800 million by 2024.

Japan’s low tolerance for THC also makes it a convenient place for Taiwanese to order CBD online or buy while visiting the country.

“I think the Taiwanese are definitely interested because they’re coming to Japan to try it out. It’s a loss for small Taiwanese business owners who might want to enter the market,” Jon Nakamichi, co-owner of Kyoto, told Al Jazeera.

“Looking at the big picture in Asia, legalizing CBD – if not buying it in Taiwan – is still much more liberal than in other Asian and Southeast Asian countries.”

CBD remains a regulated drug in Singapore, while Hong Kong recently criminalized it, destroying a thriving, established industry there.

But Taiwan’s view is not optimistic. Lawyer Li said recent changes in the region showed Taiwan could be lagging behind its neighbors. In Japan and Malaysia — where laws on recreational marijuana remain strict — lawmakers, doctors and advocates expect medical marijuana legislation could emerge in the near future.

In 2018, South Korea became the first country in Asia to legalize medical marijuana. Last year, Thailand fully legalized marijuana.

Lai, a physician and legalization advocate, said Taiwan’s government likely would not change its stance on marijuana unless the U.S. federal government legalized it for medical or recreational use.

But as more Taiwanese try marijuana in Taiwan or CBD in Japan, the stigma surrounding it may start to slowly fade, Lee said.

“Before, you had to fly all the way from Europe to the U.S. to have a chance to try it,” Lee said.

Now, she sees more forgiving discussions on Internet forums like PTT, Taiwan’s Reddit-like platform.

“People (on the Thailand Tourism PTT page) have started talking casually about marijuana,” Lee said. “They no longer see it as an evil substance.”

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