The medical cannabis industry in Thailand is growing slowly and tentatively, but the potential is huge.
Over the past few years, the cannabis legalisation movement in Thailand has been going strong – back in 2017, the political party Future Ahead presented a legalisation plan in parliament. The plan emphasised the positive medical aspects of marijuana, the need to reduce the country’s prison population, and calculations of the economic potential of the country’s cannabis market. Marijuana sales alone could be worth about $2.5 billion, not counting exports and tourism profits.
In 2018, Thailand legalised industrial hemp and CBD. As Vice reports, in January 2020, the government opened the first clinic to treat patients with Parkinson’s, cancer and other conditions with medical cannabis. And on 4 August 2020, the government backed amendments to the national anti-drug legislation (Drugs Act). Under the amendments, the right to produce, export, import and sell medical cannabis was granted to private Thai companies. Thailand thus became the first country in the South-East Asian region to legalise medical cannabis.
“The passing of this law will provide a foundation for the development of the pharmaceutical industry and increase its competitiveness, which is an important aspect for Thailand to become a leader in medical cannabis,” Reuters quoted Thailand’s Minister of Public Health as saying.
However, it’s not all that simple – there are plenty of inconsistencies in the nation’s drug laws. Marijuana is still categorised as one of the five psychoactive substances, along with kratom, a plant from the coffee family that has stimulant effects similar to opiates.
Local activists emphasise -cannabis has only been illegal in Thailand since the 70s, and before that it was and is an integral part of Thai culture and tradition. “Yes, it’s been illegal legally for the last 41 years, but Thai people still like to make soup and smoke bong when they’re out with friends and family,” Arun Avery, a cannabis activist and researcher working for the Ministry of Health, tells Mugglehead.
It all started in the 1970s, when the US began to put pressure on Thailand to tighten control over drug smuggling in the country, which was at the centre of the so-called “golden triangle” (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar). At the time, the region became a hub for smuggling heroin, which was heavily used by American soldiers after returning from the Vietnam War.
In exchange for billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, Thailand launched a full-scale war on drugs, focusing its efforts on the heroin trade, as well as destroying the production and sale of “Thai sticks” (cannabis twisted onto a bamboo stalk and tied with silk thread).
The Thai war on drugs has also led to a rapid increase in the country’s prison population. According to 2010 data from the Department of Corrections, more than 54 per cent of the 290,000 prisoners were serving time for drug-related offences.
Despite the reform process, marijuana remains a class 5 controlled substance – punishment for cultivation and simple possession without intent to sell carries heavy fines and prison sentences. Enforced street testing is common in Thailand, where cars are stopped at random and passengers are tested for methamphetamine, “ice” and marijuana. The result of such testing can result in thousands of dollars in fines or 5 years in jail for drug possession.
Despite such draconian measures and criminalisation, many people traditionally use cannabis for medical purposes. Officially, the legalisation of medical cannabis occurred in 2019, by parliamentary decision, but the Thai bureaucratic machine has implemented this possibility very poorly in practice.
There are several legal ways to access medical cannabis, but each involves complex certification processes and obligations for licensing. Both public and private clinics are taking only the first timid steps in this direction.
Also unclear is the situation with law enforcement. The population does not yet understand how legalisation is implemented in practice and those who want to use cannabis for treatment also buy it on the street.
However, the country has already started to develop local cannabis production companies. According to Thai laws, the import and export of cannabis will be restricted to foreign companies for the next five years (until February 2024). During that time, public entities can obtain licences to produce, import and export cannabis. And private entities can only obtain a licence in cooperation with the state. One of the largest cannabis companies (Thai Cannabis Corporation) is headed by Vairoj Samyai, former head of the International Narcotics Control Board.
However, despite the country taking the first steps in developing a medical cannabis market, most experts and activists are still sceptical about the prospect of legalising cannabis for recreational use.
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