By / February 7, 2023

As Hong Kong Cracks Down, APAC Neighbors (Sort Of) Losen Up

While Hong Kong is taking the extreme measure of introducing life sentences for CBD possession, its APAC region neighbors are heading in the opposite direction.

Earlier last year, we saw Thailand end its war on drugs, and now Australia and Japan are revising outdated attitudes towards drugs with new legislation. However, in both Australia and Japan, the introduction of more relaxed legislation is restricted to a small set of medical cases. Recreational use will remain prohibited in both countries. 

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Australia to Allow Prescription of MDMA and Psilocybin

In Australia, licensed psychiatrists will be able to prescribe MDMA and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, from July 2023.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which regulates drugs in Australia, will allow MDMA to be prescribed for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression.

“These are the only conditions for which there is currently sufficient evidence of potential benefit in certain patients,” the agency said.

The amendment follows requests for the reclassification of substances to the TGA, extensive public consultation, and an expert panel report.

Australia to Maintain Prohibitions in All Other Cases

The change means that MDMA and psilocybin, previously prohibited Schedule 9 substances, will now be considered Schedule 8 controlled substances when prescribed by a psychiatrist. In all other cases, such as recreational use, they will remain Schedule 9 drugs, except in those provinces where they are decriminalized.

“This decision recognizes the current lack of options for patients with specific treatment-resistant mental illnesses,” the TGA said. “It means that psilocybin and MDMA can be used therapeutically in a controlled medical setting. However, during psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, patients may be vulnerable, which requires controls to protect these patients.”

Prescribing psychiatrists must be licensed through the TGA’s licensed prescriber program and receive approval from a human research ethics board.

Although there are currently no approved products containing psilocybin or MDMA, psychiatrists can legally access and provide a specified “unapproved” drug containing these substances.

Announcement “Unexpected” Given Australia’s Conservatism

Stephen Bright, the director of the charity Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the announcement “was unexpected given that Australia is such a conservative country.”

“The details provided so far by the TGA are thin. There are no products available, and besides myself and a handful of colleagues, there is no one trained to provide the treatment. We’re waiting for a little more information to get an idea of what it looks like in practice,” he added.

Early last week, it was announced that the Swinburne University of Technology, a public research university based in Melbourne, had signed a research agreement on psychedelics. According to Swinburne, the trial will be the largest in Australia to study psychedelic mushrooms and treatment-resistant depression. About 160 patients will participate in a randomized controlled trial of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy versus placebo.

“Psychedelics could transform the treatment landscape for many psychiatric disorders, including major depression,” said Professor Susan Rossell. “We have the opportunity to make a substantial difference and for Australia to lead the way in psychedelic research.”

Japan to Legalize Medical Cannabis

The Japanese government is poised to allow the medical use of cannabis to treat patients with incurable diseases, according to draft bill outlines revealed last week in Japanese media.

The Japanese government plans to submit several bills, including one to revise the Cannabis Control Law, during the current session of the Diet, the Japanese legislature.

Initial Plans in Japan Are Limited

Initial plans to legalize medical cannabis in Japan only involved the authorization of Epidiolex, a pharmaceutical CBD oil for childhood epilepsy refractory to standard treatments. In December 2022, Epidiolex entered a phase III clinical trial with 84 participants to test the efficacy and safety of the drug.

The U.S. FDA and European health authorities have approved Epidiolex.

The proposed revision would also criminalize the recreational use of cannabis, which is not criminalized today under an original provision of the Cannabis Control Act that does not punish consumption for protecting hemp growers who may unintentionally inhale psychoactive substances from the crop. However, the possession, sale, and cultivation of cannabis for recreational and medical purposes are illegal.

By cracking down on the recreational use of cannabis, the Japanese government wants to prevent its growing use among youth.

CBD: A Market of Hope

Alongside this medical reform, the CBD market is proliferating, at around €120 million in sales by 2022.

Currently, products containing CBD, extracted and manufactured solely from the mature stems and seeds of the cannabis plant, do not fall under the legal category of cannabis and, therefore, can be manufactured and sold in Japan.

When importing CBD products, however, the importer must prove that they do not contain THC and are extracted only from the cultivated stem and seeds. Moving from plant part-based regulations to extract composition-based regulations would immediately expand the potential gateway for CBD imports and provide new market opportunities.

While CBD oils are the most popular format of healthy forms of CBD consumption, vaping is the most popular format in Japan. Their popularity is due to Japan’s e-cigarette regulations, where vapes containing nicotine are prohibited by law. CBD-containing liquids provide the sensation of vaping without the prohibited ingredients.

Topical products are also good entry products in Japan, as Japan has a massive skincare market.

(Featured image by Alexander Grey via Pexels)

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