Thailand’s Cannabis Quandry

Thailand's Public Health Minister Anutin Chanvirakul with a bottle of CBD oil | Photo: AP

The news this week that Thailand has moved to decriminalise marijuana was initially met with some surprise in parts of the region. It is a first for Asia. 

Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board announced the decriminalisation of cannabis and hemp, removing the two plants from Category 5 of the drugs list, and allowing commercial cultivation across the country.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said that the remaining drugs in Category 5 will include still opium, “magic” mushrooms and cannabis products containing higher levels of THC.

The Thai government of General Prayut Chan-o-Cha has been keen to emphasise the law changes only relate to cannabis used in medical, research, industrial, health or food processing only. This means than recreational use will remain banned for the immediate future.

Members of the public who want to grow cannabis or hemp are advised, by the minister, to wait for the new ministerial announcement to come into force, so that there will be no more confusion about whether cannabis can be grown legally.

Minister Charnvirakul said those who want to plant cannabis must register with the authorities concerned and, if they want to produce extracts from the plant, they will have to get official permission.

The Health Minister has been the prime mover behind decriminalising marijuana.

His Bhumjaithai party is a major partner in the country’s coalition government, and he campaigned hard in the 2019 general election for legalisation of marijuana production to help Thailand’s pot farmers.

Now, the government is also spruking the country’s cannabis industry, which they suggest has the potential to develop into a significant income earner for Thailand. 

Anutin told reporters the law change delisting cannabis “responds to the government’s urgent policy in developing marijuana and hemp for medical and health care benefits, developing technology and creating income for the public.”

His party has now proposed a draft Cannabis Act to clarify the legal status of marijuana in Thailand. This new law could see relaxation in the laws around recreational cannabis use in the Kingdom. "Just hold your horses for the time being," he said, adding the warning extends to recreational smoking.

"Until the law is cleared, caution should be exercised," he said. "It isn't something that can be done freely."

Currently 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 ($NZ68,000).

The change of heart on cannabis in Thailand has also focused business minds on the lucrative possibilities of the medicinal cannabis industry worldwide.

In Southeast Asia, countries that have traditionally been extremely anti-drugs are now looking at Thailand’s example and weighing up the economic possibilities.

Consumer sales of CBD products, which are non-psychoactive and come from hemp, are worth around $US 2 billion a year worldwide. Investors and Southeast Asian cannabis entrepreneurs are moving into the market, but international competition is strong with growers in places like California producing cannabis on a massive scale. 

Thailand’s legal cannabis market for both medical and recreational use could be worth $661 million USD by 2024, while Asia’s market could reach $5.8 billion USD, according to the Asia Cannabis Report. Unsurprisingly, other Southeast Asian countries are already on track to follow suit. Malaysia, Singapore and even The Philippines are investigating legalising medical marijuana.

But the negative societal connotations and taboos surrounding cannabis have existed for decades and are still strong in nations like Indonesia and Malaysia. Governments’ current unwillingness to legalise the plant for recreational use is another chapter in a long saga.

There is also a significant scepticism around the Thai government’s new-found enthusiasm for the cannabis industry, with critics pointing out that little has been done to develop quality controls or export markets for the products.  

But pro-cannabis campaigners across the region remain convinced they can convince the Southeast Asian public of the benefits of medical marijuana.

If investment continues to build in Thailand, and if the country can establish a point of difference in the market – perhaps by developing its own strains of quality cannabis – then the Thai public’s support for a major reassessment of the drug in the Kingdom could be next.

- Asia Media Centre