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Interview

Thailand Opens Its Arms To Cannabis

It’s a dramatic U-turn. Thailand used to vilify marijuana. Now it’s government has embraced to an extraordinary degree.

By Chris Cummins

This month Thailand removed marijuana from its banned narcotics list. This has basically meant, says our correspondent, that cannabis products are suddenly as easy to get hold of as a cup of coffee. Police, politicians and families are still trying to make sense of this new reality.

As of this month, people in Thailand can grow cannabis plants at home. They can also sell cannabis to people over the age of 20. As long as they register with authorities, households can cultivate up to six cannabis pot plants at home. Companies who obtain a permit can farm marijuana. If you go to a restaurant in Thailand now, you might find cannabis-infused dishes and cannabis-infused drinks openly displayed on the menus.

Authorities say the law is aimed at medical use not recreational use but it is difficult to distinguish between these two things in a legal sense. Our correspondent in Bangkok Jonathan Head has called it “perhaps the most liberal approach to marijuana anywhere in the world.”

I called up Jonathan and asked him about life in Thailand in this new era of marijuana-legalization.

Thailand legalisiert Cannabis

Jonathan Head

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has been the driving force behind decriminalizing marijuana. But you still can’t smoke joints, Minister says.

Chris Cummins: Since this new law has passed – how easy is it to get access to cannabis, how visible is cannabis in society?

It’s very easy indeed. It’s just about as easy as buying a cup of coffee. It’s amazing how fast people have switched on to the moneymaking possibilities, the business possibilities of marijuana. Suddenly you’re seeing it right in the centre of Bangkok with big bright signs with the marijuana leaf, the very distinctive design.

The place is really in Bangkok that’s really taking it to heart is the famous backpacker hang out of Koh San Road. They are not just selling products containing cannabis; they’re selling great lumps of the plant itself. They’re selling the flower heads, which of course, are very hallucinogenic. And people are buying these openly.

The only thing you can’t really do is smoke it openly in Thailand. I mean, they’ve been a couple of marijuana festivals where people are smoking very, very openly. But in in the cities, in normal life, the authorities have made it clear they don’t want that and they have passed a regulation. So, you could be fined or even imprisoned if you just happened to walk down the street smoking a spliff. But provided you’re doing it somewhere where it’s out of sight as far as the law stands, you can grow as much marijuana as you like and you can consume as much as you like.

CC: Even if you can’t smoke it in the street, we’ve seen a Government Minister, for example, trying out cannabis curry. I find this remarkable because for many years Thailand was been associated with a very tough line on drugs. When I think of Thailand and drugs, I have quite haunting images in my head of death sentences and prison horror. This is quite a U-turn, isn’t it?

It’s a massive U-turn. It’s been some time coming. I think, interestingly, it is partly as a result of those very images from the war on drugs launched by then Prime Minister Thaksin more than 20 years ago. Most people now people recognise that was a failure.

Interestingly, it was under the military government that seized power in 2014 that that government was the one that first started looking at the enormous number of people in prisons.

Thailand’s got one of the highest prison populations anywhere in the world, particularly women prisoners. More than three quarters of them are in for drug offences, many of them very minor, for example just possession of marijuana. The military government started thinking that perhaps they needed to change their approach. The they looked at America that you can also use marijuana for medical purposes and you can make a lot of money out of it.

And it was a key election platform by one of the middle-sized parties in the last election. That party ended up being the kind of kingmaker its votes were critical to get this government into power. And so the leader of the party, Anutin Charnvirakul asked for the health portfolio because he saw the legalisation of marijuana as a health issue. He say it as a way in which you could treat people, for example, suffering from cancer treatment. But he also saw it as a potential cash crop in his main constituency, which is a rural area, and where the traditional cash crops like rice and sugar don’t make enough money. It was already an election commitment in the election three years ago.

Thailand legalisiert Cannabis

Jonathan Head

Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalize cannabis.

So it was part of a plan made a while ago?

Yes but I think they didn’t anticipate was that if you decriminalise marijuana and you don’t already have a lot of other regulations to govern it, you are going to end up with an absolute explosion in its usage. That is more or less what we’ve seen happen in the past two weeks.

CC: But I guess in that region where they’re growing marijuana, it must be a real economic boon, particularly given that Thailand has suffered so badly over the COVID period. They’ve lost a lot of tourism revenue. I guess any sort of new way of making money must be must be a lifeline for the country.

JH : Yeah. And he’s pushing in an open door, the Health Minister. And I think there are probably many people in the current Thai government which has a lot of old fashioned military generals who are not that happy to see we’d be legalised like this.

But it’s an obvious income earner and I think the Thais are savvy; they realise it’s going to be a big tourism draw. I don’t just mean backpackers who like the chance to be able to smoke without the risk of going to prison. But also medical tourism. The use of cannabis for the use of cannabis for medical purposes is growing all the time. Already people come here for medical treatment. And we are seeing now a very strong recovery beginning from the long COVID lockdown where Thailand did really suffer from the lack of tourists. It’s very hard to resist this as a moneymaking opportunity.

CC: Is everyone happy with the situation?

They are passing some more regulations now to try to restrict the use of marijuana. And there is a little bit of a backlash. There are people saying, hold on a minute. You know what happens if our teenagers get high? Do people know how much they should take? But I don’t think they’re going to shut this door. I think there’s a realisation that this will have a very big economic impact.

I don’t think though it’s going to be the economic bonanza for the very people who voted for it in the Health Minister’s party; the farmers in north-eastern Thailand. When he went to announce the law being changed, there was a huge enthusiasm. Everyone been given free marijuana plants to take home and grew very excited by the possibilities. But, actually, it’s quite a difficult crop to grow commercially. It needs a lot of investment, a lot of knowhow.

I suspect what you’ll see is that it has a big boost for tourism and that some of the big food and agri-businesses in Thailand will really get in on the marijuana boom.

We’re seeing medical clinics setting up, but for smaller players, for people growing at home, they can grow for their own consumption, but they’re going to find it much harder to turn it into the kind of cash crop that they hope it will be.

Thailand legalisiert Cannabis

Jonathan Head

Health Minister Anutin, a former tycoon, also said he hopes the Thai cannabis industry will generate billions of dollars in income by boosting agriculture.

CC: Are there are any worries that if everyone can get easy access to this drug, that it might have an impact on road safety or work safety, that sort of thing?

JH: Yeah, those worries are there. But, you know, some of the people advocating for marijuana say, look, you know, marijuana helps you when you’ve got cancer. Cigarettes give you cancer.

Alcohol has known serious social consequences, particularly in Thailand. There’s the health impact but also domestic abuse as a result of alcohol. We have people losing their jobs and falling to pieces. That’s big, big problem here. I think we’ll end up with regulations that govern the use of cannabis, but it will remain legal.

But the worries about cannabis are the same worries you can have about any other substance which affects your affects your mind.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the penalties for other drugs still remain very harsh here. Most of the people in prison are they’re not for marijuana possession, but for methamphetamine smuggling. And I think those penalties will remain harsh. If you’re dealing with other drugs in Thailand, you’re still at risk of going to jail for a very long time.

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