Brands and investors are eyeing Asia as the cannabis economy permeates health and wellness culture.
From luxury gummies to infused coffee beans to body lotion to pet treats, cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, has pervaded almost every corner of the wellness lifestyle in the U.S. But in China, a country responsible for producing more than half of the cannabis in the world, most people likely have never heard of it.
Janice Buu, the founder of L.A.-based cannabis lifestyle brand DankGals, is hoping to change this, starting with bringing her Korean beauty brand, Kana Skincare, to Asia. The Chinese-Korean entrepreneur, who launched her line of CBD-infused sleeping masks and facial oils in 2017, is confident that China’s exploding beauty and wellness market will welcome CBD, albeit with a bit of education.
“I thought of China first because there are a lot of health and wellness opportunities. Chinese people in general use a lot of herbal medication,” Buu tells JWT Intelligence. But not all CBD oil is created equal, and there is no shortage of misinformation and confusion swirling around the cannabis industry. Buu adds, “It’s just like when wine first moved over to China—a lot of people were drinking spoiled wine and they didn’t know, they just wanted it for the status … I think we’ll see the same thing with CBD, so education is really important.”
Buu isn’t the only one noticing Asia’s potential. Investors from around the world met in November 2018 for the Hong Kong Cannabis Investor Symposium to discuss Asia’s role in a worldwide market projected to reach $57 billion by 2027, according to Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics.
“When people see legalization in the U.S. is being accepted, it’s very likely the same trend will happen in Asia,” Jim McCormick, chief operating officer of California-based cannabis packaging firm KushCo Holdings Inc., told Bloomberg. “Sooner or later, it’s going to happen.”
Cannabis is currently illegal in Hong Kong, as well as mainland China, but CBD (without the psychoactive THC compound) is a common Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredient, and numerous groups are doing extensive research around its pharmaceutical potential for treating a variety of ailments.
Misunderstandings and calls for further research by officials and health groups remain in Greater China. Professor William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying CBD was “probably addictive”. And the government takes a dim view of cannabis use even outside China’s borders—when recreational use became legal in Canada, the mainland China government warned its students studying there against taking part in using cannabis. Korea informed its citizens they could face harsh penalties at home if they’re caught using recreational marijuana abroad.
Recreational use aside, the increasing availability of CBD and hemp oil in North American beauty retailers like Sephora and the more recent Fleur Marché is catching the attention of some young Chinese consumers traveling abroad. On social media platform Xiaohongshu, users are reviewing products like Origins “Hello Calm” face mask with hempseed oil, sold in Sephora, and Malin+Goetz cannabis-scented candles.
In Japan, where cannabidiol has been legal since 2016, U.S.-based New Age Beverages Corporation will soon be serving health-conscious consumers its new line of Marley+CBD drinks at FamilyMart stores. Meanwhile, Canada’s Phivida started selling its CBD-infused iced tea and hemp oil tinctures in the country last year and announced plans for opening an office in Tokyo to join other CBD players that mainly target Japan’s health and wellness market, including Australia’s Elixinol and Canada’s Naturally Splendid.
There are signs the space could move beyond health-food stores—Toronto-based Province Brands, which claimed it has created the first cannabis-based, non-alcholic craft beer last year, secured investors from Japan and Hong Kong, according to Bloomberg.
Helping move the industry along is a series of wins for the cannabis industry when it comes to policies in a region known for its capital punishments for cannabis—Thailand’s government announced its decision in December to legalize medical marijuana, while Malaysian officials have toyed with the idea to change its strict laws following a death penalty sentence for a man caught distributing CBD oil to ill patients.
In Korea, which legalized CBD oil strictly for medical purposes in November 2018, the research team behind Kana Skincare is already consulting with other parties to explore CBD possibilities in the domestic market in case laws are further relaxed down the road. Meanwhile, Buu says she is getting requests from both eager consumers and distributors across Asia for Kana products, which are labeled as containing “hemp” along with 17 to 28 active botanical extracts. The formula does in fact include full spectrum CBD derived from industrial hemp, which means it contains all parts of the plant, but is completely stripped of the psychoactive element THC to help make it compliant with regulations in countries where CBD is legal. The result, Buu claims, is a recipe that is all natural, anti-inflammatory, full of vitamins (omega 3, 6 and 9) and anti-oxidants, and works with ingredients popular in K-beauty that work overnight to rejuvenate the skin.
There’s no doubt still plenty of ground to cover in turning a region with some of the strictest cannabis regulations into a fervent wellness-focused economy. But it’s likely that, with help from open-minded millennials, social media, and more research, CBD and its vast number of lifestyle applications could see a bright future in Asia.