Thailand’s high-end hotels serve cannabis cocktails, spas work with cannabis oils and swanky restaurants have cannabis-laced curries on their menus. Supermarkets sell bags of cannabis leaves and cannabis-themed cafés are all the rage. In May, the country’s public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul announced that he would distribute one million cannabis plants for household cultivation once the necessary legislation passes in June.
Cannabis, a plant species to which both marihuana and hemp belong, has been an integral part of Thai cultural life for centuries. The plant has long been used as a spice in soups and as traditional medicine against a range of illnesses, while Muay Thai boxers wrap strings of hemp around their fists for protection.
But cannabis has been illegal in Thailand for almost a century. It was first outlawed with the Cannabis Act in 1935. In the 1960s and 1970s, when more than 7 million American military personal flushed through Thailand on the way to Vietnam, Thai stick, Thailand’s potent outdoor cannabis, became legendary. But once the global war on drugs picked up speed, the country’s 1975 Psychotropic Substances Act and the 1979 Narcotics Act made the distribution, and in some instances, consumption of cannabis an imprisonable offence.
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In 2018, Thailand decriminalised the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. From the beginning of July, Thailand will no longer class cannabis as a narcotic, the first Southeast Asian country to do so. Regional neighbours will pay close attention to what environmental and social consequences this legislative shift may incur.
According to Chicago-based veteran agricultural advisor Dave Donnan (who sits on the board of a Canadian cannabis company), the environmental impact of large-scale cannabis cultivation in the United States has been minimal, “In the US and Canada, cannabis is grown almost exclusively in green houses. You don’t even need agricultural land. You can grow it in a warehouse, very densely in a controlled environment. You can cut down on water, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers, you can control the run-off. We do grow hemp outdoors. That requires irrigation, crop protection, crop nutrition – like any other type of plant, like rice and corn.”
Hemp is a very sustainable crop that could replace carbon-producing products. It can be harvested every three months and could replace wood in paper production. But for that, it needs to become a mass commodity.
Kitty Chopaka, cannabis advocate
In Thailand, large scale production of hemp and cannabis is in its infancy. According to cannabis advocate Kitty Chopaka, cultivation is likely to remain in a legislative grey zone and output will be patchy for some time to come.
“Hemp is a very sustainable crop that could replace carbon-producing products. It can be harvested every three months and could replace wood in paper production. But for that, it needs to become a mass commodity,” she says.
The positive environmental impact from growing hemp, particularly the plant’s efficacy in remediation, is well documented. “Hemp is grown around Chernobyl as well as Hiroshima. Its roots reach deep into the ground, help irrigate the soil and suck up chemicals and heavy metals. and if it is contaminated you can use it as cement fibre, or turn it into a plastic or plywood.”
In Thailand too, Chopaka suggests, the environmental impact of growing hemp would be largely positive. “Hemp should be planted amidst rice paddy. That would be a smart way to use the land during fallow periods and provide farmers with extra income. But that remains illegal.”
Numerous obstacles stymy the creation large scale plantations. Chopaka adds: “Hemp is not globally industrialised. The infrastructure for international trade is not there. We don’t have the ability to move different parts of the plant across borders. And local infrastructure is lacking too. We have plenty of rice mills, but no hemp mills.”
Dave Donnan agrees. “It will be difficult for Thailand to export cannabis or hemp products. That would need a change in mindset and legislation in the US. Right now, one can’t even shift cannabis from California to New York. Cannabis remains an internationally restricted substance and the US and Europe are protecting their markets.”
Right now, the focus in Thailand is on high value cannabis which is difficult to produce consistently on a large scale.
“The health department is contracting farmers to grow cannabis in green houses. That requires high capital input as well as high use of electricity and nutrients,” Chopaka says.
And there are environmental costs to be counted. “I don’t see that legal green houses in this country will go the organic route. I don’t see them recycling the water, as farms in the US do. The thinking is, we will not worry about chemical run off or how to minimise energy consumption. The environmental side effects are not so important,” she says.
Pock 420, who declined to reveal his real name, is a cannabis entrepreneur in southern Thailand. When it comes to the social impact of the new legislation, he sees the country moving into an all-familiar, grey limbo.
“In the south of Thailand, farmers use lots of chemicals and many get sick. Cannabis oil can help, but few people know how to grow it properly. I give my oil to sick people. That’s illegal and I have to hide my activities.”
Pock 420 says that the legislative changes make no sense for ordinary people.
“Cannabis is a normal plant. It should be totally legal. But they legalise only leaves and stems. The flower, the buds remain illegal. It’s like selling banana skin without the banana. The social and legal consequences of growing and consumption remain significant.”
Chopaka agrees: “Cannabis sold in Thailand must contain less than 0.2 per cent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the plant’s psychotropic ingredient), which is concentrated in the flower. If you grow cannabis and then consume the flower, you’re likely to break the law. The recreational consumption of cannabis, like prostitution, which is illegal, will be one more thing that will be up to the discretion of police. This is Thailand. Everyone needs a piece of the pie — the cops, the underground. If it does not open this way, it will never happen.”
For Pock 420, the current changes in legislation are firmly tied to Thailand’s next general election.
“Whoever legalises cannabis will win. Anutin knows that and he wants the votes. He said before the last election that every house could have a plant and people voted for him, but still, old people who use it get arrested.”
Thailand recently decriminalised kratom, a mildly narcotic plant. That has had no measurable social impact.
“They don’t care about kratom because there is no money in it,” Pock 420 muses, “But there’s money in cannabis. The government wants to create the same type of monopoly for cannabis as it did for beer. People who grow or smoke at home will be busted.”
Ironically, Pock 420 believes, the partial legalisation will lead to more underground growing.
“Some older people see consumers as criminals, even as more and more young people, better informed through the internet, take up smoking. Despite fears of arrest, illegal farming will expand.”
Chopaka is part of an association called Riding the Future of Thailand’s Cannabis, which campaigns to make cannabis fully legal.
“To combat the hemp and cannabis act that Anutin submitted, we suggest our own act - for people by the people. We travel around Thailand to gauge the public’s opinion on what a cannabis law should look like, and on 8 June, we will submit our findings to parliament.”