A few years back, marijuana, cannabis or ganja, as it’s called in Thailand and other Asian countries, suffered from a derogatory reputation in the country, associated with characters considered unpleasant, such as skin-and-bone crackheads or dirty hippies that roam the infamous back streets. That’s why it was quite a surprise when the campaign to legalize the psychoactive substance became one of the hottest issues of the year, especially during the recent general elections. Oversized green marijuana leaves appeared on the campaign posters of the Bhumjaithai Party—headed by business tycoon Anutin Charnvirajul—one of the many that pushed for the legalization and freedom of cannabis farming, and to make cannabis an export crop of Thailand. The attempt to legalize marijuana has since sparked many discussions and debates revolving around the substance, turning the public's eye to the controversial green plant. Despite having one of the strictest drug laws in Southeast Asia, Thailand has become the first country in the region to legalize marijuana, but only for medical use and research purposes. With the global cannabis market reported to be worth US$150 billion, according a 2018 Barclays report, and expected to reach US$272 billion in 2019, cannabis is undoubtedly an enormous business opportunity. Thailand is set to benefit tremendously from the new legislation, and the legalization of medical cannabis seems to be just a starting point in the country’s perceived future in marijuana.
Before marijuana was considered a “form of evil,” the substance was commonly used in Asian countries, including Thailand, as a medicinal herb. The use of cannabis as a drug in Thailand can be traced back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom during the era of King Narai (1632-1688), as evidenced in the King Narai Medicine Book. According to Dr. Surang Leelawat, assistant professor at the Medicinal Cannabis Research Institute of the College of Pharmacy at Rangsit University, cannabis was used in various Thai medicines including prasaganja, an appetite stimulant that used marijuana in half of the concoction, as well as sooksaiyad, which was known to cure insomnia. The substance was also widely used as an important ingredient for guay teaw reur (boat noodles).
The marijuana grown in Thailand achieved notoriety during the Vietnam War, when American soldiers based in Thailand were introduced to the country’s homegrown strain. Thai weed become popular thanks to its high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that gives one the high that’s associated with the substance. The strain’s distinctive stick-like shape earned it the nickname “Thai Stick.” It later made its way to the US and was praised as “the Cuban cigar of the marijuana world,” according to an article by Andre Bourque in Forbes Magazine in 2018.
It was not until 1934 when the consumption of marijuana was partially restricted in Thailand with the enactment of the Marijuana Act. The green plant was completely banned for both medical and recreational use four decades later with the implementation of the Narcotics Act in 1979, which classified marijuana as a Class 5 narcotic and subjected marijuana users to up to 1 year of imprisonment, and dealers to up to 15 years of imprisonment and fines up to B1.5 million. The illegalization of marijuana in Thailand, as pointed out by Bourque, coincided and was influenced by the toughening of antimarijuana laws in the US throughout the 20th century, when the substance was purported to have links to international criminal gangs. The subject of marijuana became a hot issue once again in 2016 when Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya requested the removal of marijuana, as well as krathom leaves, from the drug list in the Narcotic Act, and encouraged that a medical perspective be imposed on the substance. Paiboon’s proposal become a reality in February 2019, when marijuana was declared legal for medical and research purposes.
According to Dr. Surang Leelawat, marijuana contains cannabinoids that have been proven effective for numerous pathological conditions, including nausea and vomit relief (the side effects of chemotherapy), reduction of seizures in small children with epilepsy, and curing nerve pain. It has also been used (though without clear research to support it) to manage behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson patients.
Dr. Surang is the director of the newly founded Medicinal Cannabis Research Institute of the College of Pharmacy at Rangsit University, which has been studying the medicinal properties of marijuana, as well as developing medicinal products from the plant such as oral sprays, cannabis oils and cannabis tablets. The director was also behind the groundbreaking discovery of the anti-cancer effect of THC in bile duct cancer cells, as published in Cancer Investigation Magazine in 2010, and of how cannabinol (CBN), together with THC, is able to stop the growth of lung cancer cells in lab animals. The research center is the brainchild of Rangsit University rector Dr. Arthit Urairat, aimed at developing medical marijuana for the public with great efficiency and safety.
Dr. Thanapat Songsak, Dean of College of Pharmacy at Rangsit University, ensures the potential of the institute—and of Thailand—to produce high-quality medical marijuana for local use instead of importing costlier alternatives from big pharmaceutical companies. “Thailand boasts a climate that’s perfect for marijuana cultivation. We have the light and the right temperature. Many countries that produce marijuana yearn for an environment like ours. We have the potential to rely upon ourselves and grow our own crops. Dr. Arthit and I believe in the capability of Thai researchers.”
Though medical marijuana has been legalized in Thailand, the prescription of the substance is strictly restricted to physicians and pharmacists who have since undergone the adequate training conducted by The Department of Medical Services and the Department for the Development of Thai and Alternative Medicine. According to Chaiwat Muangkaew of the Office of the Attorney General, individuals, including patients being treated with medical marijuana, found with the substance but without certification from licensed doctors, would be breaking the law and are still at risk of getting arrested.
While the Medical Cannabis Research Institute is supportive of the use of marijuana for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, it is more cautionary about marijuana for recreational use.
The boom of medical marijuana has resulted in a high demand for the substance, prompting illegal and uncontrolled sales and distribution in online platforms. Doctors and government officials have been warning against the risk of marijuana overdose, which can lead to extreme panic attacks, seizure and hallucination. “The use of medical marijuana needs to be strictly regulated by trained physicians, and the substance itself has to be of good quality. For products acquired illegally online, we cannot know of their origin, which strains of marijuana they use, or the intensity of the cannabinoids in it,” said Patompong Satapornpong, Assistant Dean for Special Administration and Corporate Communication at the Medicinal Cannabis Research Institute. “Also, the dosage has to be strictly controlled for each patient. With the products of Rangsit University, we have the technology to regulate the production process to separate and mix the cannabinoids using the right ratio.”
Dr. Surang also weighs in on the possible outcome of marijuana abuse. “Even though marijuana boasts tremendous health benefits, it is still a drug. In the eyes of doctors and researchers, it is still unsafe to use freely for recreational purposes as it can result in psychosis symptoms like anxiety and depression in long-term use. I have had many experiences with people who overuse marijuana.”
However, she still believes that if the government implements efficient measures to regulate the use of the substance, it is still possible for Thailand to allow recreational marijuana. “Right now, people have very limited knowledge of marijuana. But if there’s a law that restricts the use of marijuana, for instance the places it can be used, the age limit and the quantity allowed to be carried per person, it can be quite safe in a way.” She adds, however, that the recreational aspect of weed is outside the institute’s scope of research.
Niran Pravithana, CEO of Hong Kong-based investment group AVA Advisory, relates that recreational marijuana is foreseen to contribute enormously to the world market in the near future, to the extent that it could be a substitute to alcohol and cigarette. He cites Constellation Brands, the owner of well-known beer Corona, as an example and its investment in Canadian-based Canopy Growth, the world’s biggest cannabis producer. The company hopes to launch cannabinoid-infused beer in the US once recreational marijuana becomes federally legal.
Likewise, Clint Younge, the president of Company X, which promotes CBD businesses, argued during the discussion panel at Techsauce Global Summit 2019 in June that marijuana has produced tremendous economic growth in the countries where it’s been legalized. It could be argued that if Thailand were to completely legalize weed, the industry can contribute enormously to the economy by offering great business opportunities for local farmers and producers.
From a legal perspective, the legalization of recreational marijuana must come with societal change, including the introduction of a law that protects the people from the side effects of the perceived drug. “The marijuana issue is actually very delicate in the legal aspect. For example, as the drug entails hallucinatory effects to the users, imagine if someone drives when they are high,” Trin Kanhirun, executive director of Aber Law Firm Group, explains. “Right now, we only have traffic laws that restrict alcohol consumption. The country must come up with a system that’s able to test the level of marijuana in the body. More importantly, how will society protect the underaged from marijuana abuse? Many laws and regulations in society would have to be altered and improved, and they must be dealt with very carefully.”
The legalization of marijuana is a delicate process that affects numerous aspects of society, and the country should take such a transition phase with great caution. According to Niran, Thailand should learn from the examples of other countries that have legalized marijuana and study how it has affected the society.
“The cornerstone question of the legalization of marijuana is not whether we should legalize weed or not, but how the substance, which was once perceived a hard drug, has become a soft drug.” Niran elaborates. “The legalization of marijuana is not equivalent to freedom to weed, as many may think.” He draws a comparison between the Netherlands and the state of California. According to Niran, the Netherlands aimed to reduce drug-related crimes by lessening the penalty on using the drug. Marijuana in the country is still illegal, with recreational use of it tolerable in regulated spaces, like coffeeshops, and problems that arose from the legalization were shown to be limited. As for California, whose transition was more abrupt, and where regulation is more lenient regarding recreational marijuana, violent crime rate from marijuana use increased. In the case of Thailand, it would be best to examine each case study in other countries cautiously and take the transition phase seriously.
As important as the transitioning is the change in attitude of the Thais towards cannabis. “It is painstakingly difficult to change people’s view towards marijuana, especially the elderly, as the substance was classified a narcotic,” Niran further explains. “It will take quite a while for them to view marijuana as normal as cigarettes or alcohol. We have to rely on the new generation, who are more open-minded, to discuss the issue of legalization and for the future of weed to happen.”
The subject of legal marijuana entails the question of who will benefit from the legalization. According to Rattapon Sanrak, one of the founders of Highland (see page 8), a group of weed enthusiasts aiming to educate the public with adequate information on the substance, society needs to see marijuana in the bigger picture, in terms of an ecosystem. “Cannabis legalization can benefit all the parties involved in the circulation of marijuana, be it in the farming industry, medicinal production, and recreational travel.” And most importantly, everyone , from grass-root farmers to white-collar entrepreneurs, should be able to gain access to be benefitted from the legalization.
However, the democratic distribution of gain from marijuana is still a long winding road for Thailand as the cultivation, production and distribution of medical marijuana, at least in the first five years, is strictly restricted to government organizations. To be able to participate in Thailand’s weed game, private institutes or individual players must collaborate with the government, or face charges otherwise. The Medicinal Cannabis Research Institute at Rangsit University, which is a private organization, though granted permission for research and product development, are ironically not allowed to distribute or sell their medical marijuana products. “Unlocking marijuana results in another form of locking,” laments Dr. Thanapat. “However, we are doing our part in developing our medicine to the best they can be with the hopes that the law will one day change.”