This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA
This week, Thailand, became the first Southeast Asian nation to approve the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. It’s a milestone development not just for the Buddhist-majority country, which has been ruled by the military for over four years, but also for drug laws in the broader region.
The new legizlation could bring an ancient part of Thai culture back to the forefront—marijuana was used in traditional medicine before it was banned in 1934—and revitalize the country’s once-celebrated stains.
The Land of Smiles was once home to the world’s smoothest and potent ganja that enabled it to become a major cannabis exporter in the 60s and 70s. (Fun fact: the term ‘bong’ originates from the Thai word baung, which refers to a tube or pipe usually made from bamboo). But the industry died down in the 80s as Thailand became America’s ally in the war on drugs, and the prestige of Thai marijuana began to decline.
The new law, however, could see the country return to its green glory days.
“Thai cannabis will soon be the global industry's profit leader, like Swiss watches or Apple smartphones,” Jim Plamondon, vice president of marketing at Thai Cannabis Corporation (TCC) told VICE. TCC is a Chiang Mai-based company that makes legal products such as CBD oil.
Thailand is regarded by scientists as a center of diversity for cannabis and has a deep history of innovation in the sector, according to Plamondon. “It has more landrace strains than any other jurisdiction, and they are rightfully considered to be a national treasure,” he described, using the term for crops that grow in the wild. Unlike Western strains that tend to be hybrids, Thailand's tropical specimens, found in the northern mountains, are natural and considered higher quality. While many Thai strains aren’t commercially available at the moment, Plamondon expects them to eventually sell at high prices.
Back in the day, the country’s most famous strain was the legendary Thai Stick, which exploded in popularity during the 60s, a time when thousands of U.S. soldiers were stationed in Thailand. The tall, seedless sativa buds that were dried and tied to a hemp stick remain a household brand to older stoners such as Peter Maguire, co-author of ‘Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade.’
“Fresh Thai sticks had a spicy, thick, pungent aroma, like camphor with a hint of cinnamon. There was nothing dainty or sweet about them, and the intoxication was similar powerful,” the book states. It then quotes a passage from High Times magazine, the go-to publication for weed counterculture: “Years before sophisticated sinsemilla techniques were incorporated into the crop management of U.S. growers, the Thais were, without effort, turning out a superior product.”
Time will soon tell whether Thailand’s medical players use the world-famous Thai Stick in their treatments. The new legalization rule is expected to produce a system akin to Australia’s, in which doctors need a special license to prescribe the herb and users must prove they have a relevant ailment such as epilepsy.
Thai lawmakers have long pushed for medical legalization but until now, their efforts were stymied by widespread conservatism – the Buddhist-majority country is deeply traditional despite its status as a vice haven. Earlier this year however, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta government approved a law that allowed limited cannabis cultivation for medical testing and this week’s seal of approval from the military-appointed parliament was the final icing on the cake, or the last twist of the spliff.
But there’s one major buzz kill. Pharmaceutical companies are trying to patent critical elements of the ganja plant: THC and CBD.
Years ago, Britain’s GW Pharma and Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical applied for Thai patents for the two compounds, explained Chokwan ‘Kitty’ Chopaka, a spokesperson for Highlands Network, a pro-legalization group focused on educating Thais about cannabinoids. The move, she told VICE, is “a clear violation of patent policies.”
Products derived from the natural processes of plant and animals are not patentable, according to Thai law. If foreign pharma gets their way, that means Thai players would need to acquire the rights to use THC or CBD in their medical research in what would be a major hindrance to innovation. “It’s either stupidity or corruption on behalf of the regulators,” Chowpaka said. “We’re waiting for the patent department to come out and say something.”
One of the country’s leading private schools, Rangsit University, has said that it will take legal action against the country’s Intellectual Property Department if the applications aren’t dropped, local media reported.
Medical legalization “is a huge win but it definitely isn’t the end of the road,” said Chopaka.
And as for recreational pot? It has a chance of eventually becoming legal, Chopaka said, but “we need to take things one step at a time.”