There is an increasing global trend towards legalizing the use of cannabis, albeit to differing extents. Canada and Uruguay have fully legalized cannabis, while New Zealand has legalized cannabis for medical use only—although a referendum will be held in 2020 on recreational marijuana use.

This trend is emerging even amongst Asian countries, which generally impose tough laws on drug use. Thailand is the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, with Malaysia and the Philippines considering similar legislative changes.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that many Asian countries remain steadfast in their stance against drugs. Generally, even trace amounts of controlled drugs are sufficient to trigger the operation of anti-drug laws, which attract severe penalties.

Singapore, known for its zero-tolerance stance against drug use, classifies cannabis, cannabis resin, and its derivatives as Class A controlled drugs. Under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, the penalties for trafficking, manufacturing, importing, exporting, and possessing controlled drugs include a lengthy imprisonment term with caning, or death. Company officers may also be liable if the offense is committed by the company with their consent or as a result of their negligence.

What does all this mean for businesses?

With the legalization of cannabis around the world, one can expect to see a greater range of cosmetic products being developed which contain ingredients derived from cannabis. Companies can now legally invest in the development of products offering the various purported benefits of cannabis-derived ingredients. Where these products were previously scarce or non-existent, they are now widely available. This means that cosmetic companies must be even more vigilant in ensuring that these products are not accidentally imported into or sold in ASEAN countries.

In Singapore, while all cosmetic products must be registered with the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), the ingredients listings need not be approved by the HSA. Therefore, successful notification of these cosmetic products does not necessarily mean that the product is legal under local law. The situation is largely the same across Southeast Asia, given the ASEAN Cosmetic Directive which seeks to harmonize the cosmetic regulatory scheme amongst ASEAN countries.

In December 2018, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), Singapore’s primary drug enforcement agency, seized mascara containing cannabis sativa seed oil from a local skincare shop. The mascara was imported directly from the shop’s retail partner located in the USA. The shop immediately removed the mascara from its online store and complied with the CNB’s order to immediately cease the import and sale of the product. A spokesperson for the skincare shop stated that the company did not expect cannabis to be in the ingredient list, especially on a cosmetic product.

In an official statement, the CNB reminded importers, retailers and members of the public that any products derived from the cannabis sativa plant may contain controlled drugs (such as tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC) despite the product label indicating otherwise.

The above example serves as a cautionary tale to companies of the potential risks of dealing in products containing cannabis-derived ingredients, and the need to be keenly aware of the legal landscape in the jurisdiction where they operate.

Given the increasingly common use of cannabis-derived ingredients, it is an opportune time for cosmetic companies to undertake a comprehensive review of their internal compliance policies and supply chain. They must ensure that these products do not slip through the cracks, and are not sold in an ASEAN country illegally.

After all, in addition to penalties imposed for contravening local laws and regulations—be they anti-drug legislation or product safety laws—the negative publicity involved may leave an indelible stain on the company’s reputation.


Ren Jun Lim is an Associate Principal in Baker McKenzie's Singapore office. He represents local and international clients in both contentious and non-contentious intellectual property matters. He also advises on a full range of healthcare, as well as consumer goods-related legal and regulatory issues.


Xie Shern Kong is an Associate in the Intellectual Property Practice Group of Baker McKenzie's Singapore office.


Ying Yao Hang is a Practice Trainee in the Intellectual Property Practice Group of Baker McKenzie's Singapore office.