Thailand, known for its tough policies against drug trafficking, is taking a page from Canada and other countries and is seeking to lead the way in Asia in legalizing medical marijuana.
The reason? It’s largely cash. Thailand, which in the 1980s was one of the world’s top exporters of cannabis, wants to reap the rewards of the $10 billion-dollar-plus marijuana market.
As more countries embrace the medicinal qualities of cannabis, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization — under the Ministry of Public Health — is trying to persuade the military government to approve studying the drug so it can market it for medical use.
“The best strains of cannabis in the world 20 years ago were from Thailand, and now Canada has developed this strain until up to this day, we can’t claim that ours is the best in the world anymore,” said Dr. Nopporn Cheanklin, executive managing director of the GPO.
“That’s why we must develop our strain to be able to compete with theirs.”
Though it’s looking to allow medical marijuana testing on human subjects, Thailand’s government wants to maintain its tough reputation regarding drug trafficking.
In a recent bust, police seized up to 1,380 kilograms (3,042 pounds) of marijuana and said there has been a recent surge in cases involving amphetamine pills, marijuana, ketamine and “ice” or crystal methamphetamine.
According to state media the government in June destroyed more than six tons of narcotics worth 13 billion baht ($390 million) from a total of 7,245 drug trafficking cases, adding to the 129 tons of narcotics Thailand has destroyed since 1977.
The Thai government still maintains that cannabis is illegal and will continue to enforce punishment for those possessing marijuana for recreational purposes, even with the consideration of medical cannabis legalization.
“It does seem hypocritical and cynical to be legalizing medical cannabis but maintaining harsh punishments for recreational users,” wrote Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation in the U.K., in an email.
“The punitive model is symptomatic of a wider problem with entrenched prohibitionist thinking; it’s proving hard to shake off despite the obvious cost and evidence of failure.”
The military government’s cabinet of ministers in May gave the green light to amend the country’s drug laws to allow research on the effects of medicinal marijuana on humans.
The bill is currently being debated in the National Legislative Assembly, which is expected to give the nod to legalization in up to nine months before it becomes law.
That would make Thailand the first country in Asia to legalize medical cannabis.
The global marijuana market is projected to reach $23 billion by 2022, with an annual growth rate of 22 percent in the five-year forecast, according to Arcview Market Research.
Currently the world market value for cannabis is $12.9 billion for 2018 with the U.S. as the leader, yet in four years Canada and California are projected to capture up to 41 percent of the total global market.
Uruguay and Canada are leading the way on recreational cannabis. Germany broke barriers in 2017 for medical use, according to Arcview.
“It will be important for new market entrants like Thailand to get established quickly, however, or existing players like Canada and the U.S. will use their historical advantage to capture and dominate the market sector,” Rolles wrote.
Thailand could have some natural attributes as a marijuana capital. Costs of production could be lower, making it a potentially attractive destination for foreign producers.
The Southeast Asia nation’s year-long tropical climate means lower costs for artificial light and temperature controls, paired with Thailand’s previous reputation of marijuana cultivation.
It is the country’s first legal cannabis company, which according to its website is working with Maejo University to develop products and medicines.
“Thailand has not only the large medical tourism industry, it also has an unparalleled system of traditional medicine that is regulated and standardized.”
Medical research into marijuana continues to evolve yet studies show the plant could be used to aide patients with Parkinson’s disease, cancer, seizures and autism.
The marijuana plant in Thai history has been used to help with pain, nausea and distress during childbirth and was commonly grown for personal use by field hands looking to relax.
Thailand’s marijuana history was driven strongly by the country’s history with the U.S., said Plamondon. During the Vietnam war, American G.I.s while flying into Thailand for rest and recuperation became exposed to Thai cannabis.
Laws on the books remain tough on marijuana, for both use and sale. Currently, possession of cannabis in Thailand could land its owner in jail for up to 15 years as the plant is a category-5 narcotic drug along with psychoactive mushrooms and kratom, a psychoactive plant similar to opiates that is native to tropical Southeast Asian countries.
The amendment as described by the government’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board’s Deputy Secretary-General Wichai Chaimongkhon is an attempt to make the country “more international” by opening a window to allow marijuana testing on human subjects in order to conduct research or develop medicines.
“If it’s proven that the medicines could cure diseases like Parkinson’s disease, cancer, depression, then I believe it’s a benefit and could create revenue if we export the medicines out to sell in other countries,” Wichai said.
That is a thought mirrored by Thailand’s largest network of private hospitals, Bangkok Dusit Medical Services Pcl, which is prepared to push forward with research and development of medical cannabis once it’s legal, said the group’s assistant chief medical officer Wisut Lajchasaewee.
Private hospitals such as BDMS, state organizations and Thai medical companies would be able to apply for licenses with the Ministry of Public Health to conduct research and experiments using marijuana once the law goes into effect possibly next year.
Pharmaceutical companies, however, may stand to lose out if they don’t adapt quickly enough. The legalization of medical marijuana in some U.S. states has led to a decline in revenue for pharmaceutical companies for pain relievers and sleep aids.
The big pharmaceutical companies operating in Thailand including Pfizer Inc., Novartis AG and GlaxoSmithKline Plc generate some of the highest revenue in the domestic drug industry, netting up to a total of 20 billion baht ($601 million) in revenue in 2015.
Their highest-value products are painkillers and fever medication, according to Krungsri Research.
“Thailand is not a country that likes to be the pioneer in the medical industry,” Nopporn said. “But we certainly will not be the last country to do it.”