Asian countries have not been known for their acceptance of cannabis either as a recreational drug, or for its medicinal value. Thailand is the first Asian country to break stride, legalizing medicinal cannabis, and opening up a global export market.
Change doesn’t always come quick, and Asian countries like China and Japan have been notoriously tough with their drug laws, even cannabis. This is true as well for countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, getting caught with minor possession in such countries can earn a person a lifetime in prison, or even a death sentence.
So it’s no small feat that in 2018, Thailand’s military appointed National Legislative Assembly voted 166-0 to legalize medicinal marijuana. Before a law goes into force in Thailand, it also must be approved by Thailand’s reigning monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The legislation went into effect in 2019.
Thailand and cannabis
The legalization of medicinal cannabis, and the opening of a global export market did nothing to change the laws around recreational cannabis in Thailand. Cannabis still remains a category 5 narcotic under Thai drug laws and illegal possession of the plant can garner a person up to 15 years in prison, and approximately a 1.5 million baht fine (about $48,000). If a person is caught trafficking, they could face life in prison, or even the death sentence. The change in laws was covered under the Narcotics Act of 2019, which is a modified version of the Narcotics Act of 1979.
The medicinal legalization is strictly for those authorized by the government to cultivate and use the plant. Users are required to have a doctor’s prescription and a marijuana identification card.
The laws that originally legalized medical cannabis in 2018, are likely to be updated in 2020. The cabinet approved a Public Health Ministry proposal to expand the existing laws to allow patients, medical practitioners, and traditional medicine healers to cultivate cannabis. This authorization, should it pass, would allow a greater number of people to legally grow, including folk healers.
It is this amendment that would also allow for product producers to import and export as well as manufacture their own products. As it currently stands, production, import, and export are only for state agencies or those who work with them, this amendment would open up industry even further. The hope of the amendment is to help local manufacturers compete in the global market.
Right now, the amendment is just draft legislation. It’ll go to the Office of the Council of State to be examined, after that it will go to the House panel for further consideration. The panel will then forward it to the lower House.
How can a marijuana market help?
When it comes to estimating the value of markets, its easy to find many different numbers. Often, it simply suffices to say that a lot of money can be made. One estimate, for example, puts the possible Thailand legal marijuana market at about $150 billion.
Part of the purpose of the amendment is to boost wellness, travel, and agricultural sectors, with the first two showing a predilection for Thailand to become a hotspot for medical cannabis tourism. In fact, prior to the amendment being drafted, the Health Ministry had already created a facility to offer free cannabis medicine to patients, which is a separate entity from the other authorized clinics in the country that can prescribe cannabis – which number about 147.
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Marut Jirasrattasiri, the director of the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine stated in an interview, “Thailand is already a tourist destination for many foreigners, and marijuana will be another attraction for the country and for medical tourists.” Although he went on to say that priority would be given to Thai investors, this is not certain, and other sources have indicated the usefulness of outside investment.
While expanding business opportunities within a country is generally good for the economy, it’s even more important this year. Due to Covid, Thailand’s general economy is expected to shrink by approximately 8.5%, as of yet the biggest projected decline in Asia. Perhaps this is why the government has been acting so quickly to change laws and open new financial opportunities.
Medical marijuana clinic?
In the first week of 2020, Thailand opened its very first medical marijuana clinic in Bangkok. The clinic offers free cannabis oil treatments and general care to patients with different medical disorders like Parkinson’s, cancer, or even insomnia. On the very first day it was opened, the clinic brought in hundreds of patients with upwards of 3,700 more showing interest via the mobile application.
Four different drugs with different combinations and amounts of CBD and THC were given out. Most of the crowd was elderly, and patients were given vials of 5-10 milligrams. This is the first clinic to open where cannabis is a specialization, the staff are specifically trained in handling it, and its open full time, unlike other similar clinics across the country.
Medical marijuana tourism
While the clinics open in Thailand are for the Thai people, there is a push towards opening up Thailand’s medical benefits to people outside the country, thus creating a hotspot for medical marijuana tourism. There is currently draft legislation to allow foreign visitors to actually bring their own medicinal cannabis into Thailand so long as they have existing prescriptions.
While this wouldn’t be finalized until at least February 2021, it would possibly allow visitors to come in with as much as 90 days worth of cannabis medication. No further information was given as to whether this would involve only low-THC preparations or not, or how this would be reconciled with airlines which have their own laws about what substances can be brought on board.
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Pipat Ratchakitprakan, Thailand’s minister for Sports and Tourism, stated, “We would like to provide medical tour packages, such as detox, Thai massage and other wellness courses that use marijuana substances.” This was supported by Thailand’s governor of The Tourism Authority – Yuthasak Supasorn – who said he wanted to build high quality tourism into Thailand, which essentially means bringing in Americans and Europeans who will spend more money.
According to managing director for Prohibition Partners (a leading cannabis research firm), Daragh Anglim, “From a financial standpoint, as the world’s most populous region, the legalization of cannabis could encourage robust economic growth across the region, buoyed by both local and international demand.”
One thing for sure is that Thailand is jumping right in. Just a few years ago it was illegal to do anything at all with cannabis, and in that general region it mostly still remains that way. In fact, even in Thailand, no decriminalization or legalization measures have been taken for recreational cannabis (though it is being spoken about). So the idea of going from 0 to about 75 is actually pretty impressive, pushed onward, no doubt, by a lagging economy and the economic horror of the Coronavirus pandemic.
It seems Thailand should have no problem pushing through this new amendment and opening up for a greater level of international trade. Whether licenses really will be preferentially given to the Thai over foreign investors still remains to be seen, as does the actual passing of the amendment. Interested investors should keep abreast of legislative changes in the country, and specifications for licensing as they are made clear. It’s hard to say exactly how it’ll go, but Thailand certainly seems to be moving full speed ahead, and in another few years it could even be yet another completely legal country.
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