Legal cannabis could be pot of gold

Siobhan Robbins, news correspondent

Today, Canada is making history - after 95 years of prohibition it is now the second country in the world to legalise cannabis for recreational use.

"How will you celebrate?" local news sites ask audiences, as publishers both sides of the border pump out marijuana 101s to ensure there's no haziness surrounding the change in law.

But while some are planning pot parties to mark their new found freedoms, others have been focusing on the green dollar.

According to accounting firm Deloitte, legal marijuana is expected to become more than a $6bn (£3.5bn) business in Canada in 2019, with up to $4.34bn (£2.5bn) coming from the legal recreational market and as much as $1.79bn (£1.04) from medical sales.

In the run up to today, so-called "reefer madness" has gripped Wall Street with billions of dollars being poured into stocks over the last few months, despite some experts warning it could end in a buzzkill if the bubble bursts.

However, the dizzying profit possibilities mean many are willing to take the risk.

Estimates that the global legal medical cannabis market alone could be worth more than $50bn (£37.9bn) by 2025 are proving so alluring even some drug hardliners in Southeast Asia are starting to appreciate the possible highs.

No doubt incentivised by Canada's "green rush" , Thailand has been looking at legalising medical marijuana by next year.

While recreational use would still be illegal, the country's Governmental Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) has begun researching mass-producing medicines from the drug.

Thai police have already handed over around 100 kilograms of seized weed to help with the research.

GPO chairman, Dr Sopon Mekthon, believes Thailand could become a world leader in the medical cannabis industry, potentially making a sizeable profit from exporting products.

"The Governmental Pharmaceutical Organisation intends to use marijuana, which is a plant that grows well in Thailand, for medical research and to develop it into medical marijuana extract and other pharmaceutical products of standardised quality," he said in a recent statement.

While 72% of Thais support the move to legalise weed for medical purposes, a Nida poll found half said it should be restricted to hospital use, and Dr Mekthorn was keen to stress: "We will use it for medical purposes and will safely control it. It is not for recreational use."

At present, cannabis is categorised as a Class 5 narcotic in Thailand under the 1979 Narcotic Drugs Act.

The law prohibits production, consumption, sale, import, export or possession of the drug, unless permitted by the Public Health Minister on a case-by-case basis.

While the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is currently drafting a new bill to remove marijuana from the Category 5 Narcotics list, it will only apply to use for medical purposes.

The Thais won't be following Canada towards wider legalisation - yet.

But Thailand may have competition in the race to become the first country in Asia to allow medical pot.

Malaysia, which traditionally uses capital punishment for some drug trafficking offences, has also been contemplating the medical cannabis market.

A decision this year to sentence a 29-year-old man to death for processing, processing and distributing cannabis was met with public outrage, rekindling the conversation over the drug's use - with the country's cabinet reported to have "very briefly" discussed its medical value last month.

That limited legalisation has even been mentioned, however briefly, is a radical step for a country that currently imposes a Dangerous Drugs Act which states that individuals caught possessing 200 grams or more of marijuana can be charged for drug trafficking, and could face the death penalty.

So even in a region with some of the harshest drugs laws in the world, it's clear some leaders are not blind to the economic benefits of a strictly controlled medical marijuana market.

Lower production costs and year-round tropical climates could make both countries a draw for foreign investors.

Thailand's booming medical tourism industry adds to the attraction, while its shadier past as one of the world's top marijuana exporters of the 1980s shows mass cultivation is more than possible.

Canada's cannabis cash-crop has highlighted just how fertile the industry could be.

Around 30 countries have already legalised it to some degree for medical use, and parts of Southeast Asia are now primed for planting.