BANGKOK — Thailand made it legal to cultivate and possess marijuana as of Thursday, like a dream come true for an aging generation of pot smokers who recall the kick the legendary Thai Stick variety delivered.
The stated intention of the country’s public health minister to distribute 1 million marijuana seedlings, beginning Friday, has added to the impression that Thailand is turning into a weed wonderland.
But for the time being, would-be marijuana tourists will be disappointed. Thailand has become the first nation in Asia to decriminalize marijuana — also known as cannabis, or ganja in the local lingo — but it is not following the examples of Uruguay and Canada, the only two countries so far that have legalized recreational marijuana on a national basis.
The government has said it is promoting cannabis for medical use only, warning those eager to light up for fun that smoking in public could still considered to be a nuisance subject to a potential 3-month sentence and 25,000 Thai baht ($780) fine. And extracted content remains illegal if it contains more than 0.2% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that makes people high.
That’s roughly the same amount that might be found in hemp, a cannabis variety mostly grown for fibers that are used for industrial purposes.
So far, it appears there would be no effort to police what people can grow and smoke at home, aside from registering to do so, and decanting it for medical purposes. But commercial cannabis products cannot breach the limit.
Thailand wants to make a splash in the market for medical marijuana. It already has a well developed medical tourism industry and its tropical climate is ideal for growing cannabis.
“We should know how to use cannabis,” Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, the country’s biggest marijuana booster, said recently. “If we have the right awareness, cannabis is like gold, something valuable, and should be promoted.”
But he added, “We will have additional Ministry of Health Notifications, by the Department of Health. If it causes nuisances, we can use that law (to stop people from smoking).”
He said the government prefers to “build an awareness” that would be better than patrolling to check on people and using the law to punish them.
“Everything should be on the middle path,” Anutin said during a news conference ahead of the decriminalization Thursday.
Economic benefits are at the heart of the marijuana reforms, projected to boost everything from national income to small farmers’ livelihoods. But there is concern over whether the benefits will be distributed equitably.
One fear is that giant corporations could be unfairly served by proposed regulations involving complicated licensing processes and expensive fees for commercial use that would handicap small producers.
“We have seen what happened with the alcohol business in Thailand. Only large-scale producers are allowed to monopolize the market,” said Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, a lawmaker from the opposition Move Forward party. “We are worried the similar thing will happen to the cannabis industry if the rules are in favor of big business,” His party wants laws now being drafted to tackle the problem.
Small operators are keen to move into the marijuana sector anyway.
On a hot Sunday afternoon in eastern Thailand’s Sri Racha district, Ittisug Hanjichan, owner of Goldenleaf Hemp, a cannabis farm, held his fifth training course for 40 entrepreneurs, farmers, and retirees. They each paid about $150 to learn tips on nicking seed coats and tending the plants to get quality yields.
“I believe that this new cash crop will be a path for Thailand to revive its COVID-hit economy,” said Ittisug, whose nickname is Boy.
One of his students was 18-year-old Chanadech, who said his parents used to scold him for trying to secretly grow marijuana plants.
He said his father has changed his mind and now sees marijuana as a medication rather than something to be abused. The family runs a small homestay and café and hopes to one day provide cannabis to their guests.
Gloria Lai, Asia regional director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a network of over 190 civil society organizations worldwide advocating drug policies “grounded in principles of human rights, health and development,” sees liberalizing marijuana laws as a good step that might provide economic opportunities for rural communities.
“From our perspective, a major positive outcome of the legal changes is that at least 4,000 people imprisoned for offences relating to cannabis will be released, people facing cannabis-related charges will see them dropped, and money and cannabis seized from people charged with cannabis-related offences will be returned to their owners,” Lai said in an email interview.