On December 26, 2018, the National Assembly of Thailand approved cannabis for medical use. The approved measure now awaits King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s signature before becoming law. However, the quest has already began for different groups to make their voices heard. Everybody wants in on the soon-to-be created medical cannabis industry. A struggle for power exists between foreign businesses, local farmers, patients, and the government itself.
Thai people have long used cannabis, better known as ganja in the kingdom, as traditional medicine. The last several decades have seen shaky back and forth attitudes on the plant depending on who has been in power. The first ban on ganja occurred in 1935 with the Cannabis Act. The government criminalized the plant, albeit loosely. Things then turned more aggressive due to the influence from the United States.
The United States war with Vietnam brought U.S. troops to Thailand in the 1960’s. At the time, ganja farmers had perfected their craft. Cannabis from Thailand was the most elite flower in the world. Farmers skewered harvested buds on thin bamboo stalks, wrapped them with cannabis fibers, and then dipped it all in hash oil. The American presence in the region created a huge market between farmers and troops. The ‘Thai stick’ had the U.S. forces hooked much to the ire of the American government.
The market for Thai’s ganja then spread to the United States. Troops themselves began sending the product back home. Unhappy American officials made their displeasure known to their Thai counterparts. Initially, Thailand stood up to Washington in the 70’s with Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan pointing out that America’s beloved capitalism created the market for Thai cannabis. Things then began to change in the 80’s. Political change led to a new prime minister. Thailand then fell into demands to join the war on cannabis.
The ganja market dwindled as this new war devastated the crop as an export. However, with cannabis stamped out a new opportunity arose. Methamphetamine began it’s dangerous boom within Thailand’s borders. Devastating families due to it’s highly addicting nature, methamphetamine has been a problem in Thailand ever since. Trying to lure users away from the drug, the prime minister even floated the idea to legalize cannabis. The effort failed at the time, but a perfect storm has been brewing in recent years which has paved the way for medical cannabis to be legalized.
Cannabis is a huge money maker. With the decline in cash from other Thai crops, even the government began seeing ganja as the economic future. The Thai government granted permission to Rangsit University to conduct research in helping cancer patients. Prominent doctors then began calling on the government to legalize. Medical cannabis legislation was finally introduced and passed in late 2018. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha strongly backed the efforts. The future of Thailand definitely seems to be in cannabis.
Who will benefit from the new future, though? Legal claims on patents began almost immediately from foreign companies. These claims have even caused Chan-o-cha to hold off on legal medical cannabis until Thailand’s patent laws can be looked at more closely. Farmers, despite reassurance from officials, feel as if they will be pushed out of the budding industry. The government holds so much power that they are able to dictate which strains will even be grown. Prospective patients, often some of the poorest in the kingdom, think they should be able to grow their own medicine.
Everybody has their own vision of what the future medical cannabis industry should look like. The government wants to eventually become a major exporter of the crop. This may explain their strict control over the matter. Others believe this creates a much too seedy deal that will leave Thai patients paying expensive prices. There is concern that high prices will lead to the development of a strong black market. Politics may also play a hand. The junta government, in power since a 2014 coup, has recently announced that the long awaited general election to decide the next leader of Thailand will take place on February 24, 2019. The world is watching Thailand on it’s medical cannabis roll-out as it is the leader in Southeast Asia.