The first country in Southeast Asia to legalize marijuana for medical use and research in 2018, Thailand is set to loosen its laws around cannabis further as it advances towards full legalization—with plans to remove the plant’s flowers and buds from its banned narcotics list announced last week.
“What we have achieved so far is to declare that cannabis stems, roots, leaves and sprigs are not drugs,” said public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, also the deputy prime minister of Thailand, speaking at an agricultural event aimed to promote the cultivation of cannabis.
“Starting next year, we will remove everything—stems, roots, sprigs, leaves, buds, flowers and seeds—from the narcotics list.”
A cannabis flower in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP
The tycoon-turned-politician once said that legalizing cannabis would be “a win-win” for Thais. The country became the first in Southeast Asia to legalise the drug for medical use and research in 2018. On this most recent legalization of the use and sale of cannabis flowers and buds, he said that it was an initiative that would help those hit hard by the pandemic.
“When the economy is picking up and we don’t have new products as alternatives, people will keep doing the same things and competing with one another,” he said.
“But if we offer them a choice, they can learn to build on it, creating new products and business models, which will in turn speed up the economic recovery.”
Its new narcotics code, which officially came into effect on Dec. 9, no longer lists cannabis and hemp. And as early as next year, cannabis flowers and buds will be legal to use, process and sell outside of medical and research settings. It’s a move that, according to Bangkok-based cannabis entrepreneur and legalization advocate Kitty Chopaka, was “a savvy economic decision that was long overdue.”
“If we are going to fully legalize all parts of the cannabis plant for commercial purposes next year, it will still be with a lot of caveats,” Kitty, founder and CEO of Elevated Estate, told VICE World News, adding that the move was only “a small first step.”
“The ministries are testing the water first, but they do realize that if they don’t allow for full access, Thais will know other ways to go about finding it.”
Unlike stems, roots and leaves, cannabis flowers are typically rich in THC and are considered by scientists and experts to be the most potent part of the plant. This makes them highly sought-after as they can be consumed in numerous ways, including smoked in pipes and vaporizers, or rolled as joints and incorporated into edibles.
“Because [previously] only medical marijuana had been legalized, Thai government officials sought to prevent people misusing parts of the plant to get high,” Kitty explained.
Cannabis cultivation is currently strictly controlled in Thailand. Under an agreement facilitated by hospitals, universities and government officials, cannabis flowers and buds are removed at harvest. They are then either given to local hospitals to be made into alternative medicine, sent to medical units and facilities at local universities across the country for research, or disposed of completely.
In a region with some of the harshest drug laws globally, cannabis entrepreneurs and vendors in Thailand have cashed in on loosened laws since 2018, with a boom in cannabis-based products. With the new law enabling licensed growers of cannabis to use the entire plant for medicinal and commercial purposes, that boom is set to grow as producers can create products like edibles, oils, cosmetics and even K-Y Jelly lubricant.
“The developments mean that the cannabis industry in Thailand is growing and will only get bigger,” Kitty said. “We could probably see a cannabis and hemp-related Thai company that might go into the stock market and big companies slowly making their way into Thailand as we become an actual market.”
The entrepreneur also warned of competition should Thailand’s neighbors catch a whiff of the potentially lucrative trade.
“Everything else should slowly follow, and if Thailand does well and others in the region like Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia see this, what makes us think that they won’t jump on board?”
Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.