Thailand has shocked the world with the announcement that it will be legalizing cannabis for medical use, making it the first country in Southeast Asia to take this step. This move reverses over 80 years of prohibition, and brings Thailand closer to its roots, which included a deep cultural connection to the plant.
On December 26th, 2018, Thailand legalized the medical use of cannabis, in what one lawmaker called “A New Year's gift to the Thai people”. The law, passed by the National Legislative Assembly, which is appointed by the country’s military junta, will legalize the use of cannabis for medicine and research. The use of cannabis will be permitted in traditional Thai medicine to treat drug-resistant epilepsy, to alleviate symptoms of multiple sclerosis, to aid in cancer treatment, and for research purposes relating to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer's disease.
This move is a first in Southeast Asia, a region notorious for strict and conservative drug laws. In Malaysia, a man was sentenced to death for selling cannabis oil. Cannabis exporters face the death penalty in Indonesia and Singapore as well. In Thailand, the laws are less draconian, but still harsh: smoking a cigarette in the wrong place can be punished with up to a year in jail, and smuggling hard drugs can be met with the death sentence.
Thailand hasn’t always been hard on drugs. In fact, cannabis and Thai culture have historically been intimately intertwined.
THE HISTORY OF CANNABIS IN THAILAND
Most researchers theorise that cannabis came to Thailand from India, given that both regions refer to the plant by a similar name, “ganja”. Cannabis has long been used in Thailand as a kitchen ingredient, textile, and medicine. It was a key ingredient in Thai boat noodle soup, also called “kuaytiaw reua”, which contained meatballs, galangal root, fish offal, and lemongrass, and was seasoned with cannabis. Labourers used it as a muscle relaxant, and women used it to ease the pains of childbirth. The word “bong”, referring to the tall water pipe used to smoke weed, actually comes from Thailand.
Cannabis was banned by the 1935 Cannabis Act. It was further restricted in the 1975 Psychotropic Substances Act and the 1979 Narcotics Act, where it was classified as a Class V Narcotic. Anyone convicted of producing, exporting, or importing weed were subject to 2–15 years imprisonment or fines of up to 1.5 million baht.
CANNABIS IN MODERN THAILAND
Despite these harsh measures, cannabis culture has continued to flourish in Thailand. Weed is openly sold in many bars and restaurants around the country, with law enforcement “looking the other way” and often receiving kickbacks. In tourist areas, where foreigners often come to “the land of smiles” looking for a good time, many businesses offer “happy” goods full of ganja.
Thailand even has its own landrace strain that once took the burgeoning underground cultivation market by storm. Thai sativas are often bred to retain high THC levels. They are identifiable by their wispy hairs and pale green-brown buds, producing a clear, cerebral high that is prized around the world. Thai marijuana is often packaged in “Thai sticks”, large blunts consisting of buds wrapped around a stick, all of which is then rolled and secured in the plant’s own fan leaves.
ORIGINS OF THE LEGALIZATION EFFORT
The push for cannabis legalization in Thailand has been a long time coming. In 2016, Thai Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya called for the government to decriminalize cannabis and kratom, another Class V Narcotic with opiate-like effects. He didn’t feel that government efforts had been effective in curbing the use of these substances.
This proclamation came on the tail of a devastating “war on drugs”, which began in 2003 and has resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests. The war on drugs was conducted with a “shoot to kill” policy, with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra calling on it to be enforced with “eye for an eye” biblical justice. These tactics have been condemned by Human Rights Watch, who called upon the UN and the US to withdraw from Thailand in response. This policy runs parallel to the war on drugs taking place in neighboring Philippines, also to devastating effect.
The United States has played a role in shaping the course of Thailand’s legal relationship with cannabis. In the 1930s, the US government criminalized cannabis, and pushed for other countries around the world to follow suit. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has three offices in Thailand, and provided training to the Thai police throughout the drug war. The move towards decriminalization in Thailand seems correlated to parallel cultural and legal changes occurring in the US.
Thai legislators still face certain challenges on the road to medical legalization. Patent requests from foreign firms leave lawmakers wary, as these could allow foreign interests to dominate the market and make it challenging to get cannabis in the hands of medical patients and researchers. Another challenge is dealing with pest control in a way that doesn’t introduce contaminants into the medicine.
Thai lawmakers are confident these issues can be resolved. They are determined to keep the cannabis industry largely in Thai hands, and to ensure clean and safe products for patients. The government also likely has its eye on enhancing Thai tourism; Thailand is already a leading destination for medical tourism, and the legalization of medical marijuana will likely help this sector grow.
Thailand’s legalization of medicinal weed follows in the footsteps of similar moves by Israel, Britain, and Denmark. Advocates hope that Thailand will eventually follow in the footsteps of countries like Canada and Uruguay, and fully legalize cannabis for recreational use.