Why Thailand’s booming medical marijuana industry faces an uncertain future

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All is not well in Thailand’s medical cannabis industry. In June, the country became the first nation in Southeast Asia to legalise marijuana, but now, five months later, there is a growing push by conservatives to make cannabis a listed narcotic again. Around 200 protestors rallied recently at Government House in Bangkok to protest the possible rollback of the drug’s recent decriminalisation.  “There is a very high chance that cannabis may end up being illegal again, so it’s a very

a very high stakes game right now,” Chokwan Chopaka of the People’s Network for Cannabis Legislation in Thailand, which organised the event, told Voice Of America.

Akira Wongwan, chief executive of a medical cannabis business, Adam Group, told the Fiji Times that profit margins for recreational cannabis were “super high”.

The sector is estimated to be worth US$1.2 billion by 2025, according to the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

“With a foray of global investors entering the market, US growers are looking to expand their reach in Asia,” Ahmed Mir, the editor of Nature & Bloom, a product review site, told Inside Retail. 

“In parallel, weed grown in northern Thailand for medical purposes is increasing in sheer output but also quality.” 

The story so far

‘Ganja’ as it is popularly known in Thailand, is on an upward trajectory in the country, according to a recent report by Nikkei Asia, which called it the ‘glamour drug’ of choice. 

Cannabis shops have popped up in many Bangkok neighbourhoods, along with mobile dispensaries and street stalls, and the government’s official app for registering growers and sellers has had a reported 32 million visits so far.

Products range from ready-rolled joints to food, beverages and beauty products, and they’re not just being sold in specialty shops. 

Convenience stores sell cannabis-infused drinks, pharmacies sell cannabis beauty products and restaurants are serving up a whole array of cannabis-infused gastronomic treats, from cannabis-laced pizzas to salads and desserts. 

In some areas like Sukhumvit Road, there are up to 26 stores and mobile cannabis shops with delivery services that offer different strengths of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a cannabis compound that creates a psychoactive effect.

According to media reports, costs for a ready-rolled joint can range from US$2 to US$33, and daily revenues at dispensaries in Pattaya can range from US$1300 to US$2700. 

All sales are technically for medical, rather than recreational purposes, but prescriptions aren’t required. Consumption is only allowed in private, and sales are not allowed near youth or schools.

An uncertain future

But there is growing uncertainty over the future of this blooming industry. The proposed Cannabis Act, which would implement the decriminalisation policy, may not pass, as opposition parties argue for tighter restrictions.

Separately, the Administrative Court has accepted a lawsuit filed by a doctor and opposition lawmakers seeking an order to nullify the ministry’s decriminalisation of marijuana. 

Nutthawut Buaprathum, a co-plaintiff, said it is better to put marijuana back on the narcotics list until the proper laws are in place. 

“We know that marijuana has a lot of benefits, so we gave full support to decriminalise it. But we did not expect that the Cannabis Act would take this long and that this would cause a lot of negative impacts on society because of no proper laws and regulations,” Nutthawut told the Associated Press.

However, Mir believes that Thailand’s step towards legalising marijuana will not only bring in essential tax dollars from production to export, it will also have a positive effect on Thailand’s tourism industry which is still suffering given Covid-19 and the current lack of Chinese tourists.

Reversing gains

Chokwan, who joined the protesters rallying against the possible rollback, said that recriminalising cannabis in Thailand would reverse the gains the budding industry has made. She noted that many people have come out of poverty as a result of the burgeoning industry.

While critics of the policy cite cases of adolescents abusing the drug, Chokwan, who owns a dispensary in Bangkok herself, believes that these reports are being blown out of proportion. Ultimately, she believes recriminalising cannabis will only drive most users and sellers underground, making it harder to control.

However, Mir said there is a need for greater regulation. 

“Currently, there are no standardised regulations on the exact minimum standards regarding cannabis quality control. Medical weed can vary in quality and often won’t meet the cut for export,” he said.

“If Thailand wants to compete on quality, it will need to implement good manufacturing practices (GMP) to ensure marijuana is not only of the highest quality but that it’s safe to consume and ready for export to other medical markets.” 

Currently, GMP certification isn’t a regulatory standard. 

It could all be decided when the country’s next election takes place in May 2023. Thailand’s trailblazing efforts in this space could end up as just a flash in the pan.

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