For the first time in eight years, Thailand is finally gearing up for elections. As the country buzzes over the possibility of democracy’s return in March, Bangkok’s streets are peppered with political billboards, speaker-topped cars blasting political messaging, and campaign posters. Amidst the signs dotting Bangkok’s sidewalks, one stands out more than the rest.
The sign closely translates: “Vote for us and we’ll let you plant marijuana freely. We’re pro marijuana for medical use! Marijuana farming will be huge for business and bring wealth to Thai people.” Just below the text, a large marijuana leaf sits boldly.
The sign is one of thousands promoting the popular political party, Bhum Jai Thai, a group that believes in marijuana's importance for Thailand’s economy.
This month, Thailand became the first country in Asia to officially legalize medical marijuana. The bill got through parliament last December, but the bill was enacted on February 19th by a royal decree from Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Now that the country has welcomed the benefits of marijuana, Bhum Jai Thai is promoting it as a gold rush for farmers. The party also vows to make it easier for citizens to obtain the plant for medical reasons.
If they get elected, the party says investors, agriculturists, and anyone interested can produce and even export Thailand’s famous Thai stick. According to them, Thailand could be the next big hub for marijuana exports leading to a possible multibillion-dollar industry that has the potential to change the global weed industry entirely.
At a press conference last week, party leader Anutin Charnvirakul was asked why he decided to make marijuana a key issue in his campaign.
“Why not? We believe we are living in the modern world. And we need to adapt ourselves to this modern world,” he said. “We have been taught that marijuana is a narcotic plant and it is addictive. Everybody was made to believe that we should never touch this kind of tobacco.”
“But I will say that we haven’t seen a negative effect. Marijuana causes less aggression than people consuming alcohol… at least when you consume it, you calm down. It has medical value too. It helps with cancer, insomnia, headaches, and doctors are learning more and more.”
Charnvirakul is pushing for each household to be able to grow up to six plants.
He said that six plants per household could potentially generate 420,000 baht, roughly 13,500 USD per family, if produced and sold correctly. While he made it clear that growers will not be able to trade the plant directly with companies, he said they could still trade through government systems that are aligned with both national and international drug laws. Charnvirakul believes marijuana could become one of Thailand’s main commercial crops.
“We started to believe that since we have five types of commercial crops, rice, rubber, tapioca, sugar cane, why don’t we just add one more?,” Charnvirakul said.
Thailand’s government has been steadily rolling out plans for medical marijuana since December.
The Food and Drug Administration confirmed it will soon begin distributing medical weed for a variety of treatments, from Parkinson’s, to epilepsy, to nausea caused by chemotherapy, and even stress. They’re also going to allow amnesties for those who grow the plant already, as long as they yield their crops to the government.
The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO), which manages Thailand’s legalization of medical marijuana, also said they intend to begin planting weed crops immediately to extract cannabis oil.
But what exactly are the party’s chances? Some analysts are pegging Bhum Jai Thai as one of the main frontrunners competing in the general election, while others, like Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Faculty of Political Science in Chulalongkorn University, says the marijuana policy “should be seen as a publicity measure, to keep the party in the limelight, or to stand for something.”
Pongsudhirak told VICE that while Bhum Jai Thai is positioning itself in the forefront, they don’t have a lot to run on other than a few eyebrow-raising policies.
“The marijuana policy offer also has recent medicinal and legal support, as Thailand's health sector has debated and supported its medicinal qualities,” he said. “Without it, Bhum Jai Thai is just another smallish run of the mill party reliant on a patronage network with no policy projection.”
Although it’s hard to predict who will come out victorious, it appears the group stands a decent chance despite the military junta's attempts to make it challenging for competing parties. The junta formed their own political party last year with Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the current Prime Minister, as their candidate. It rewrote Thailand’s constitution and created new laws designed to make campaigning difficult and keep other large and influential parties, like ousted ex-PM Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party, from winning a majority of seats in Parliament.
Despite this, Bhum Jai Thai intends to find success by branding its party as the one which truly cares for Thailand’s citizens. According to Charnvirakul, allowing citizens to produce and use marijuana as medication is an important way to improve the well-being of Thailand’s citizens.
And while marijuana for now will be legalized purely for medical purposes, some sharp entrepreneurs are training their eyes on potential new billion-dollar business opportunities.
Tom Kruesopon, a well-known entrepreneur, investor, and marijuana advocate both in the west and in Thailand, is more than excited about this new prospect. He told VICE that Thai marijuana-based products are surely going to take off.
“I think marijuana is the new gold rush. But I’ll call it the green rush, right? My theory is very simple. It’s a billion-dollar business illegally, why can’t it be a billion, billion-dollar industry once it’s legal?”
He added, “If you look at it over the next five years, I truly think that Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, will produce some of the best strains of Marijuana in the world... I’m truly hoping that Thailand does everything right throughout their policies and realize very quickly we could become the centre and the hub for all legal marijuana business in Southeast Asia.”
Kruesopon is not alone in his excitement for a more weed-friendly Thailand. A recent poll from the National Institute of Development Administration found that 72.4% of those surveyed support the legalization of medical marijuana.
Despite the hype, Kruesopon explained that it’s not going to be so easy for the average Thai to make money off the plant due to stringent laws that make it difficult to sell marijuana to the US and Canada, as both countries have strict health and safety policies regarding marijuana production.
But, he says, even with the legal and regulation hurdles to overcome, he’s convinced that Thailand’s weed industry will boom.
“Thai stick is well known all over the globe. This is how I’d put it—what Bordeaux is to French wine, the Golden Triangle will be to marijuana.”