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With a history of tough drug laws, Thailand has surprised by switching its course towards an ambitious green new future. The government is discussing plans to legalize cannabis and grab a leading share of the forecasted market in Asia – expected to swell up to $8.5 billion by 2024. Could the cannabis industry save Thailand from the economical crisis set by COVID-19?

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With though laws penalizing possession of marijuana with up to 15 years in prison and massive fines, it’s odd to see Thailand as the first country in Asia to legalize medical marijuana. Thailand was one of America’s most unwavering allies in the global war on drugs. After decades of strict zero-tolerance policies and widespread methamphetamine (ya ba) epidemic resulted in the highest incarceration rate in Asia, Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya shocked the nation in 2016 when he conceded that “the world has lost the war on drugs”. Thailand’s cannabis politics have taken a 180-degree turn as the country is embracing the rising cannabis market.

Thailand became the first Asian country to legalize medical marijuana in February 2019.

With a long history of use as an ingredient, kitchen condiment, a medicine, and a source of fiber, ganja has its roots sewn deeply in the Thai culture. This was until the traditional medicine used for centuries was banned in the 1930s. Banning cannabis didn’t remove its popularity, and even to this day, it’s common among villagers where the strict laws of possession are generally overlooked. Now those same villagers might begin farming cannabis for the booming new green industry the Thai government is embracing. The forecast for the legal cannabis market in Asia is blooming —expected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2024 from virtually zero. Thailand wants to lead other Asian countries to claim the lion’s share of the green gold rush.

Thai rice farmers might change their crops soon to cultivate medical cannabis for the state.

Rice farmers asked to grow medical marijuana

The positive results of legalization in several U.S. states are inspiring: The cannabis industry has brought numerous economic benefits and created well-paying jobs. This might offer a solution for Thailand’s countryside, wherein areas like Isaan people struggle to earn a living from farming. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul made a proposal to allow individual farmers to grow cannabis plants under a joint scheme with the state. As the first government marijuana clinic has opened, villagers in the country’s northeast used to rice growing have been asked to cultivate the plant for hospitals.

Thailand’s legendary marijuana

When Thailand marijuana reached America in 1967, one amazed DEA agent called it “the Cuban cigar of the marijuana world”. After the United States built military bases in Thailand during the 1960s, the marijuana industry exploded and cheap, powerful pot became as readily available as beer. Tens of thousands of stationed U.S. soldiers spread its fame around the world.

… the Cuban cigar of the marijuana world!

Anonymous DEA Agent commenting thai weed when it first spread to USA in 1967

“Who can forget the first strange-looking Thai Sticks a decade ago! Dense, seedless, stronger than a bull elephant. Years before sophisticated sinsemilla techniques were incorporated into the crop management of U.S. growers,” wrote High Times magazine, a publication for pot connoisseurs, “the Thais were, without effort, turning out a superior product”. The price was also a bargain: You could find quality weed for $3 per kilo at a farm in Isaan, which would’ve easily fetched $4,000 in any city in the United States in the early 1970s.

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Pan Ram weed festival is held in the northeastern Thai province of Buriram on April 20th. Photo: AFP

High competition between the Asian countries

Thailand needs to pass legislation making pot legal for recreational use to ensure its success in the opening markets. Neighboring countries are following in suit legalizing medical marijuana and the competition will get tougher. The first one to create a stable cannabis industry will have an advantage in the long run. Thailand’s more relaxed laissez-faire approach is certainly on course towards legalization, returning the legendary marijuana that was once one of the Kingdom’s most famous and valuable exports.

Malaysia and Laos are also opening up their stance towards medical use, while the Philippines’ lower legislature has already passed a medical cannabis measure. China and Japan are still keeping their legislation locked, which might aid Thailand to become the leader in the cannabis space. Although marijuana remains illegal in China and Japan, the two could become the biggest segments of the Asian cannabis business over the next five years. Market forecasts their value at $4.4 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively. Japan has been credited with the highest cannabis prices in the world — a lofty $53 a gram, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Asian market projected to surpass Northern America

Thailand’s location and close business ties to Japan and China could make it the ideal exporter of medical cannabis products if the legislation continues to change. South Korea and Australia already allow import and export of medical marijuana.

“The Asian market will challenge and perhaps surpass the North American markets in the next 5 to 10 years,” announces Brian Armstrong, chief executive officer of Vinzan International. Vinzan is one of the companies trying to get a foothold in the Kingdom, already constructing cannabis operations in Laos and eyeing expansion into Thailand. It is a Canadian agricultural trading company that purchases cannabis crops from cultivation partners in low-cost markets and processes them for export. This is good news for the Kingdom’s suffering economy, which was crippled due to COVID-19 travel bans and restrictions.

The Thai government however is intent on keeping cannabis operations and the future profits tightly in the hands of the Kingdom. The state is actively limiting approvals for overseas investors and vendors after critics voiced fears about foreign companies monopolizing the market. “We want to be a leader in marijuana,” said Sopon Mekthon, president of the Government Pharmaceutical Organization, which leads the state’s cannabis research efforts. “Our brand is strong, and we have traditional Thai medicine knowledge that’s over 300 years old.”

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