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Could fully legal marijuana in Thailand be next after medical marijuana approval? Advocates push home growing

Tim Noonan

South China Morning Post

Monday 25 Feb 2019

With Thai king’s recent decree bringing Asia’s first medical marijuana law into force, advocates for the drug see it becoming a new cash crop for export

Full legalisation of marijuana is a manifesto pledge of one of the political parties contesting the country’s upcoming general election

It was a public declaration basically without precedent in Asia. Few politicians, and certainly none who are running for prime minister, ever had the audacity to say what Anutin Charnvirakul did.

“Marijuana is not a drug that should be illegal – it’s that simple,” claimed Anutin, the man who is leading Thailand’s Bhumjaithai party into the country’s much awaited general election on March 24.

Speaking in front of a full house of both domestic and international journalists at The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), Anutin continued: “Unlike alcohol and cigarettes, marijuana has great health benefits such as treating cancer, Alzheimer’s and insomnia.”

The Bhumjaithai party has made full legalisation of the drug a core campaign policy, going so far as incorporating cannabis leaves into its signage all over Bangkok.

Anutin was also adamant that Bhumjaithai will not join a ruling coalition that does not favour full legalisation of cannabis. “My party announced clearly that we will not play any political games with marijuana,” he said.

Election or no election, these are heady days for marijuana in Thailand. Despite being surrounded by countries that feature some of the world’s most draconian drug laws, in December 2018 it became the first nation in Asia to pass legislation allowing the use of cannabis for medical treatment and research. This past week, the king of Thailand made the law official through a royal decree.

The benefits would seem to be endless, particularly in a country that relies heavily on medical tourism. But while medical marijuana may officially now be legal in Thailand, at this stage there are more questions than answers about its use.

“Still this is a massive hurdle and merely the first and rightful step toward full legalisation,” said Tom Julpas Kruesopon. A local entrepreneur, some media have dubbed Kruesopon “Mr Weed” because of his tireless preaching on the medicinal and financial benefits of marijuana for Thailand.

Kruesopon joined Anutin and Dr Somyot Kittimunkong, author of the book Marijuana is Medicine that Cures Cancer, for a panel discussion at the FCCT on marijuana. An adviser to Bhumjaithai, Kruesopon claims he has no official party affiliation.

“It should be the job of any government to alleviate the pain of the people and marijuana does both because it helps medically and economically,” he said. “Anutin and his party want medical marijuana to be available to all and not just those who can afford it. They also want the business opportunities available to all and not just Big Pharma.”

Anutin has proposed allowing each household to grow six plants, with each plant potentially generating 70,000 baht (US$2,240). State agencies would buy the plants from the families, giving each a windfall of 420,000 baht, a sizeable sum in poor rural areas of Thailand. However, alarm bells have rung over illicit patent registrations by a Japanese company and a UK firm seeking to corner the market in medicinal and recreational marijuana by trademarking some of the more popular strains of the plant.

As lawmakers and government agencies scramble to define the parameters of Thailand’s medical marijuana law, some experts claim it leaves the door open for monopolies.

The stakes are high both in Thailand and abroad. “Marijuana globally is a US$250 billion business today,” said Kruesopon. “And now it’s going legal, so it will become a trillion-dollar business.”

Currently, Thailand cannot compete with the sophisticated indoor grow-ops – residential homes that are growing marijuana – in North America. While Thai government agencies have said they will monitor and control production and cultivation for medical purposes within the country, they admit that, in the long term, they could develop a marijuana export trade.

Having invested in a company with a sizeable grow-op in Las Vegas, Kruesopon has seen up close what hurdles Thailand would face in exporting marijuana.

“I don’t think countries like Canada and the US will allow the importation of cash crops into their markets because they will protect their farmers,” he said. “I do believe that the North American market would love to buy Asian products infused with marijuana. Can you imagine how popular cannabis dried mangoes will be?”

Domestically, Kruesopon believes the template for the industry is already in place.

“A perfect example is the growing of sugar cane,” he said. “Basically, the farmers grow it, then send it to a lab for extraction, then they sell it to the market and it’s pure profit sharing. I think it will be similar to that.

“Marijuana has three phases: the growth, the extraction and the sale. The growth here will be controlled and you have to get a licence to grow. The government will probably be the extractor, or involved in it by setting up private companies who can do it and then subsequently sell and market the product while, theoretically, involving the government and farmers in profit sharing.”

Born in Thailand, Kruesopon spent his formative years from the ages of seven to 22 in California. However, he claims he had little exposure to the golden state’s ubiquitous drug culture.

“The first time I tried marijuana was in the form of edibles in Las Vegas 18 months ago to help with sleep,” he said. “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, but I love to eat. You put marijuana into food and it is going to users now that have never tried it. It’s going to explode. And Asia, as your readers in Hong Kong and China know, has long been at the forefront of herbal medicine,” Kruesopon said. Adding marijuana would just be “adding one more herb”.

In Hong Kong, you don’t have to be a bloodhound to sniff out the unmistakable scent of marijuana in the air in certain neighbourhoods. But if you are caught smoking the drug, a court can sentence you to as much as seven years in jail and fine you HK$1 million (US$127,000). Using medicinal cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, to relieve chronic joint pain is also illegal in Hong Kong.

Not only are there no plans in Hong Kong to consider the use of medical marijuana, the discussion seems to be going backwards. The good news, for those inclined, is that a flight to Thailand is just a couple of hours away.

Whoever Thais elect on March 24 will be expected to roll out the legal medical marijuana protocol soon thereafter. The process, initially at least, is fairly simple: visit an approved hospital or facility and, if a doctor gives you a prescription, you can pick up medical marijuana in an approved dispensary.

While there are many questions still to be answered, for now Thailand is officially part of the medical marijuana revolution. How long it takes for the rest of Asia to join is anyone’s guess.




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