Article: Southeast Asia Looking Forward

Cannabis in Thailand

A woman walks past an election campaign poster in Bangkok, Thailand, February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
As China and Australia eye medical cannabis reform, Thailand is ahead of the curve yet again.

In yet another move that could see Thailand become the first significant player in the medical cannabis trade in Southeast Asia, the government has officially declassified cannabis and hemp plants containing less than 0.2% THC from its Category 5 narcotics scheduling, where they used to enjoy the company of psychedelic mushrooms and kratom.

That means that CBD products are no longer prosecutable under this legal framework, which had seen drug offenders charged with up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to 1.5 million baht (USD48,954).

This is just the latest move in a strategy by the Thai government to create a new source of revenue by tapping into the burgeoning medical cannabis trade.

Late last year, the government legalized the use of marijuana products for medical purposes, becoming the first nation to do so in Southeast Asia, where most governments continue to maintain harsh anti-drug legislation.

Thailand's new policies are designed to tap into what some researchers expect will be a USD5.8 billion market by 2024.

The subject of legalizing medical cannabis was not forgotten in the run-up to the Thai general election in March this year.

The Bhumjaithai party ran on a strong platform to fully legalize cannabis products, including ones with high-THC levels, for both medical and recreational use, wanting to give each citizen the right to produce six flowers of the plant themselves to serve their personal needs.

The campaign and the result of the elections granted the party's leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, a strong voice within the country's leadership, with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha offering him a place in his cabinet as Minister of Health.

That was all Anutin could ask for to push forward with his promises, but since then it became clear that full legalization of psychotropic cannabis-based products will not be so swift.

In August, the minister celebrated the delivery of the first batch of 4,500 bottles of medicinal CBD oil to hospitals, where it is to be distributed to about 2,000 registered patients. Throughout the year, a number of government-controlled facilities have been put together to start producing cannabis locally with the ambitious goal of hitting one million bottles within five to seven months.

The decision taken this week regarding the removal of CBD from the Category 5 listing opens the door to a broader use of CBD among the population and not just for regulated medical purposes.

Several companies have already shown interest in production licenses in what is expected to be a rapidly growing market if the right legal frameworks are put in place.

Some 334 permits have been issued so far, mainly to hospitals and health agencies.

However, authorities warn that hemp and cannabis products with active THC are still illegal and are cause for arrest.

And for the substances that have now been declassified, the legal framework applies solely to products produced in Thailand by licensed producers, so the idea of having people producing their own plants at home is still just a pipe dream.

Either way, the progress has been considerable for this industry in recent months, and, if it plays its cards right, Thailand could have considerable advantages in being a first market mover at a time when we see China and Australia eyeing similar reforms.

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