Drug laws in Southeast Asia are notoriously strict. In Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, for example, possessing or consuming marijuana carries hefty fines or jail time. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a bloody war on drugs that rights groups say has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Filipinos.
While its neighbors continue to enforce more conservative policies, Thailand has moved forward in legalizing medical marijuana—an industry in which the country’s military government sees huge economic potential.
In 2018, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize marijuana for medical use and research. According to The Bangkok Post, the law allows patients to carry specified amounts with a prescription from a medical professional.
Over time, the industry has continued to bloom.
In January, the government opened up its first medical marijuana clinic to treat patients with Parkinson’s Disease, cancer, insomnia, and other medical conditions. And on August 4, Thailand’s Cabinet approved a draft amendment to the country’s Narcotics Act that would allow for the private production, export, import and sale of medical marijuana.
Experts say these actions mark an attitude shift in Thailand, which criminalized the possession, sale and use of marijuana in 1935 and has labeled cannabis a Class 5 narcotic since 1979. Recreational marijuana use is still prohibited and possession of large quantities of the drug illegally is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to 1.5 million baht ($48,000).
While many are hopeful that medical marijuana may help rejuvenate Thailand’s economy battered recently by the coronavirus pandemic, others are skeptical that the industry will take off.
A projected million-dollar empire
Figures at the forefront of the nation’s budding medical marijuana industry are confident that it will be a success.
Chairman of The National Farmers Council of Thailand Prapat Panyachartrak told AFP in 2018 that he believed Thailand could rake in 100 billion baht ($3.2 billion) in revenue per year from “growing cannabis and selling the raw material.”
Thai Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters earlier this month that expanding the production of medical marijuana through newly-proposed legislation will help Thailand become a leading producer of the plant-based treatment.
“The [proposed] law will promote the pharmaceutical industry and increase competitiveness, which will be important for Thailand in becoming a leader in medical cannabis,” Anutin said.
The enthusiasm is backed by a recent report by market intelligence firm Prohibition Partners, which projects that the country’s cannabis industry will grow to 21 billion baht ($660 million) by 2024.
Sornkanok Vimolmangkang, assistant professor of pharmacognosy and pharmaceutical botany at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told VICE News that medical marijuana has recently become the “sexiest” medicinal plant used in Thailand, which has encouraged members of the medical and pharmaceutical industries to get involved in its production.
Sornkanok said it’s even possible that new legislation would help accelerate the country’s cannabis industry to a point where the plant would eventually become oversupplied, especially if production expands to encompass a large network of farmers.
Youbin Zheng, an environmental science professor at the University of Guelph in Canada and an expert on cannabis production, told VICE News that Thailand’s new legislation would certainly help the country’s important agriculture sector.
According to Zheng, cannabis is a high-value crop that will need high-quality growing facilities coupled with advanced science and technology to be successful. Because of the intricacies of growing marijuana, Zheng said the medicinal cannabis industry will also benefit other plant production in Thailand, helping advance the country’s agricultural infrastructure overall.
Not everyone is convinced the country is ready for medical marijuana
While newly-proposed legislation has heightened excitement over the potentially lucrative cash crop, some experts and activists remain unsure that the country is ready to embrace medicinal cannabis.
Chokwan Chopaka, founder and CEO of Thai cannabis-focused startup incubator Elevated Estate, told VICE News that recent discussions about medical marijuana have been a “PR stunt” led by government leaders who speak about cannabis largely in terms of its economic potential.
“They don’t actually understand the industry enough to know things like: What are they cultivating? What will it end up being turned into? Where will it go?” she said.
According to Chokwan, Thailand’s cannabis industry at present is only a half-baked idea.
“Those kinds of questions are rarely answered,” she said. “The government says it wants to boost exports, but exports to where? In what form? And with what kinds of regulations and standards?”
Chokwan said that in the Thai mainstream, perception of cannabis use is somewhat “demonized” and is viewed as “something that will make you lazy.” She stressed that laziness is frowned upon in Thai society.
She added that there remains a misconception in Thai society that marijuana use may serve as a gateway for substance abuse, though according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a US government research institute, a majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use “harder” drugs.
Edward Bednarczyk, the director for the Center for Health Outcomes, Pharmacoinformatics and Epidemiology at the University of Buffalo in New York, said marijuana’s criminal past in Thailand may have actually boosted its appeal.
“I think we’re seeing the opposite here,” Bednarczyk told VICE News. “Patients are being drawn to try medical marijuana because of it’s illegal history.”
“It’s sort of the ‘forbidden fruit’ now being available for tasting,” he added.
It’s unlikely that cannabis will be legalized for recreational use just yet
While the country continues to make strides in the development of its medical marijuana industry, experts and activists remain skeptical that the country is ready to legalize the plant for recreational use.
Chokwan told VICE News that cannabis cultivation has not yet evolved into a fully-fledged industry “because it is still very much emerging.”
She added that it’s unlikely overseas producers will be able to expand their businesses into Thailand just yet, as production remains tightly regulated by the government.
“It’s something that is still very delicate,” she added.
“Our people are not ready for it,” Sornkanok told VICE News. “It’s better to gradually learn from this new experience and then expand [cannabis] use in the future.”
Chokwan, who also promotes marijuana education through the Thai advocacy group the Highland Network, said that despite the hurdles towards normalizing marijuana use in the country, enhanced legislation is a step in the right direction.
“I do believe that any step forward is better than nothing,” she said. “Each change will lead to more accessibility and staffing.”