Thailand decriminalizes marijuana, but not the strong stuff
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.
Some Thai advocates celebrated Thursday morning by buying marijuana at a cafe that had previously been limited to selling products made from the parts of the plant that do not get people high. The dozen or so people who turned up at the Highland Cafe were able to choose from a variety of buds with names such as Sugarcane, Bubblegum, Purple Afghani, and UFO.
"I can say it out loud, that I am a cannabis smoker. I don't need to hide like in the past when it was branded as an illegal drug," said 24-year-old Rittipong Bachkul, the day's first customer.
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 declaring it is for medical purposes.
For the time being, however, would-be marijuana tourists might want to proceed with caution.
Thailand's 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, such as oil, remains illegal if it contains more than 0.2% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that makes people high.
The status of marijuana is still in considerable legal limbo because while it is no longer treated as a dangerous drug, Thai lawmakers have yet to pass legislation to regulate its trade.
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.
Thailand mainly 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.
Some immediate beneficiaries of the change are people who have been locked up for breaking the old law.
"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," Gloria Lai, Asia regional director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, said in an email interview.
"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." Her organization is network of civil society organizations worldwide advocating drug policies "grounded in principles of human rights, health and development."
However, economic benefits are at the heart of the marijuana reforms, projected to boost everything from national income to small farmers' livelihoods.
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, led 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.
One of the attendees was 18-year-old Chanadech Sonboon, 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 its guests.