How Thailand is leading the way for the liberalization of cannabis in Asia?
Thailand is a country that, historically, has experienced a very dynamic relationship with marijuana. For hundreds of years, the plant was commonly used as a spice in cooking, as a staple in Thai Traditional Medicine, and for textiles including royal garments and the ropes used to wrap Muay Thai fighters'hands. This relationship with the plant shifted dramatically in the 20th century when, as in most of Asia, it was made highly illegal. Asia has a whole is known for its strict drug laws, as embodied in popular culture by movies such as Broke Down Palace and bestselling books like The Damage Done.
More recently, the seriousness of Asian drug policy enforcement could be illustrated by the extrajudicial killings of around 3,000 people in Thailand in 2003 or the more than 12,000 killed in the Philippines' current war on drugs.
However, since 2018 official attitudes on marijuana throughout the continent have been rapidly shifting, with Thailand leading the movement. On December 25th, 2018, the Military appointed National Legislative Assembly voted 166 to 0 to approve the medical use of cannabis by those issued permits from the government.
According to 2019 the Global Cannabis Report, by November of 2019, Thailand was ranked third in the world for issuing such permits, behind the United States and Europe. Furthermore, it was announced in September of this year that the Bhum Jai Thai (Proud to be Thai) government party expects to pass a resolution next year allowing people to legally cultivate up to 6 plants per household.
The changing laws in Thailand have led to a domino effect throughout the continent, with historically conservative countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and even Myanmar beginning to discuss similar aimed at relaxing their strict drug laws to facilitate patient access to medical marijuana. This seems to be both a product of changes in public sentiment brought about by liberalization through the access to information by the internet and the economic incentives of the global cannabis market, which is estimated by The Global Cannabis Report to reach $103.9 billion USD by the year 2024. Within only 2 years of the policy changes, Thailand has emerged as a major player in the medical cannabis field, in terms of cultivation, use, and scientific development.
In order to understand the significance of these changes, it is important to first understand the history of marijuana policy in Thailand and the barriers to overcoming almost a century of prohibition.
History of Marijuana Policy in Thailand
Historically, Thai culture had an acceptance of the cannabis plant in various uses, especially in Thai Traditional Medicine (TTM or Sa Moun Pai). According to a paper published in the Journal of Thai Interdisciplinary Research in 2019, Thailand had no laws regarding cannabis or any other drugs prior to 1912. In that year, the League of Nations (later replaced by the UN) passed the Opium Convention Act of 1912. Further drug laws quickly started to be enacted in Thailand, beginning with the Narcotics Act of BE 2465 (1922) and the Marijuana Act of BE 2477 (1937). According to the 1937 act, anyone in possession of marijuana (including hemp) was subject to imprisonment and fines. This policy was strengthened following the growing use of the plant during the Vietnam War by the Narcotics Act of 1979. Since that time, the country has held a notorious reputation for being hard on drugs, including marijuana.
An analysis of the effects of Thailand's Marijuana policy published in 2017 by the Rangsit Journal of Social Science found that incarcerations for marijuana increased from 1,011 people in 2006 to 4,513 in 2016. Furthermore, by 2016 the government was spending 10.68 Billion Baht (or about $3.5 Billion USD) on drug enforcement and more than 15.34 billion Baht ($5.1 Billion USD) per year on its approximately 189,429 incarcerated drug prisoners.
According to Thai Law, cannabis is scheduled under Category 5 (along with the plant kratom) and the punishment for production, importation, or exportation of marijuana is 2-15 years imprisonment and a fine ranging between 200,000-1,500,00 Thai Baht. The punishment for possession is up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine not exceeding 100,000 baht, and for consumption (often determined by urine analysis) is 1 year in prison and a fine up to 100,000 Thai Baht. Often, police will set-up roadside checkpoints or raid night clubs, requiring everybody to submit to a urine test as there are no protective search and seizure laws as in the US or much of Europe. According to the 5th Amendment to the Narcotics Act, police officers have the right to enter and search any premise or person that they suspect of using drugs, including marijuana. And historically the conditions for 'suspicion' have been ill-defined and very lax, leading to rampant cases of extortion and corruption.
In February of 2003, then Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra launched a more aggressive war on drugs. According to a 2008 report by the Human Rights Watch, that policy led to over 2,800 extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the first 3 months. And, a 2007 study found that over half of those killings had no connection with drugs whatsoever. To date none of the perpetrators of those extrajudicial, and often arbitrary, killings had been prosecuted or brought to justice.
Changing Marijuana Policy in Thailand
For a country with such an aggressive and draconian stance on marijuana, dramatic changes are rapidly being realized. With the passing of new laws on December 25th of 2018 Thailand is poised to become a global leader in the cultivation and production of medical marijuana and industrial hemp products. This "New Year's gift" to the Thai people has allowed the flood gates to open, releasing a wave of new opportunities for the Thai people and entrepreneurs who have been secretly using or advocating for marijuana reform for years.
According to a July 2019 article in Bloomberg Thailand's legal marijuana market is projected to grow to $661 million USD per year by 2024. Thailand will lead the Asian market, which is poised to suppress that of North America within the next 5 to 10 years as countries such as Malaysia, Laos, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and most notably China, are all set to follow Thailand's lead. According to the 2019 Global Cannabis Report forecasts for Asia's medical marijuana industry are at about $12.5 Billion USD per year by 2024, with its recreational market in 4th place globally at $1.8 Billion USD per year. These policy changes have also led to a resurgence in Thailand's efforts in being at the vanguard of scientific innovations regarding the uses of cannabis, most notably at Rangsit University in Bangkok.
Over the last two years, the University has led research into many aspects of cannabis science, including publications on the anti-cancer properties of THC, the extraction of THC and CBD from the plant, and new innovations in delivery technology for medical uses. This has improved the acceptance of marijuana as a pharmaceutical drug amongst the country's doctors and medical practitioners, with many hospitals and clinics throughout the country being issued permits to administer marijuana-based oils to patients.
According to the August 2019 article published by the Thai Law Forum, government hospitals received 4,500 bottles of cannabis extract that will be freely given to patients suffering from chronic conditions such as cancer and epilepsy through the government's universal health care policy. At the time that the report was published, over 400 doctors and 2,900 Traditional Thai Medical practitioners had been certified by the Thai Food and Drug Administration to prescribe cannabis oils to their patients. Only two months later, it was reported that over 10,000 bottles of cannabis oil had been distributed to patients.
Although all these changes only apply to the legalization of marijuana for medical use only, some within the country believe that that decriminalization of recreational use may also be on the horizon. With events such as the 5th Annual 420 Highlands Festival last April and the announcement of Thailand hosting the Inaugural World Ganja Festival in 202 its obvious that the people of the country are ready for change.
More recently, Anutin Charnvirakul, leader of the Bhum Jai Thai party has proposed policy changes that would allow each household to cultivate up to 6 cannabis plants. According to a November report by Bloomberg News, Mr. Charnvirakul was quoted saying "We are in the process of changing laws to freely allow the medical use of marijuana. We have high confidence that marijuana will be among the major agricultural products for Thai households. We are speeding up the law changes. But there is a process to it." Referring to the obstacles to legalization imposed on Thailand by international laws and treaties.
What are the barriers to marijuana legalization in Thailand?
According to an August report in the Bankok Post, the International Narcotics Control Board (an independent organization under the UN) has advised the Thai government to proceed "with extreme caution" regarding it's changing cannabis policies. This is because, as a member of the UN, Thailand is under the control of international drug control policies based on various narcotic treaties enacted over the last several decades.
As such, Thailand is at risk of losing import privileges for some medicines if it legalizes recreational cannabis use, according to the UN's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as well as the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971) and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988).
Domestically, the barriers towards the decimalization or legalization of cannabis both for medical and recreational use appear to be quickly falling away.
Older generations can recall a time when their parents and grandparents openly used and consumed the plant for both medical and recreational reasons. Younger generations, growing up with easy access to the internet, understand how marijuana policy is shifting around the globe and are aware of its relative safety and economic potential.
As such, Thailand is now poised to continue leading the way in Asia regarding changing marijuana policy and developing the country into a global leader in the cultivation of cannabis for a myriad of legal uses.
Chad Scott is a freelance science writer who specializes in the field of cannabis. He spent over a decade living in Thailand. He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (a type of blood cancer) while living in Thailand in 2016. Upon diagnosis, Chad immediately began chemotherapy at a rural hospital in the country. On the first day, he was violently ill, and so decided to try a cannabis-infused oil to relieve his symptoms. He continued to use cannabis oil throughout his chemotherapy treatments for almost 1 year, and never again experienced any nausea or vomiting, and was able to sleep and eat normally. During that time he was receiving cannabis oil from a local grower, who now has a permit to produce medicinal marijuana for the government in Thailand. From his personal experiences, he has become an advocate for medical cannabis and believes that all cancer patients should have the right to access this natural medicine if they so choose.
Further about Marijuana Policy in Thailand:
- [Insight] The Tobacco Authority Of Thailand Promotes Cannabis Cultivation
- Thailand Declares 6 Rules On Cannabis Advertisement, Asia
- Proposal: New Law That Will Allow Six Cannabis Plants Per Thai Household
- Thai Lawmakers Reportedly Pushing For Medical Marijuana Research