In January 2021, the government of Thailand laid down business guidelines for the use of cannabis and hemp for medicinal, food, and cosmetic purposes. In December 2018, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize cannabis use for medicinal purposes. Initially, only state-run hospitals were allowed to dispense cannabis oil (CBD oil) for patients undergoing chemotherapy and suffering from various chronic conditions upon the doctor’s prescription.

In January 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) changed the classification of cannabis from Schedule IV to Schedule 1 “due to evidence that some cannabis-based preparations have a medical use”. Schedule IV is the list of the most dangerous substances which included heroin and carfentanil. This also prompted the United Nations’ Commission for Narcotic Drugs to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

In March this year, Thai households can grow six pots of cannabis to supplement their income. They will supply state hospitals and other facilities for food and cosmetic purposes.

But it was not an overnight decision. Cannabis and other herbs have been thoroughly researched by prestigious universities in Thailand. Among the universities embarking on the research are: the Suranaree University of Technology in Nakhon Ratchasima, Rajamangala University of Technology Isan, Rangsit University in Bangkok, and Maejo University in Chiangmai.

Not new, though

Cannabis has a long history in Southeast Asia. It is not exactly known when it was first introduced to Thailand. Ganja ( กัญชา) is the Thai word for marijuana which is a Sanskrit word. It was used for medicine, particularly as a pain reliever, food, flavoring, fabric and for its psychedelic effects.

In 1912, in a bid for international assistance, Thailand signed the 1912 Hague International Opium Convention. But it was only in 1934 under the Marijuana Act B.E.2477, that it was outlawed. Since then, growing cannabis went underground.

Under the Narcotics Act of B.E.2522 (1979), cannabis is an illegal substance that belongs to Category 5. Any cannabis-related activity could mean imprisonment of up to 15 years and fines.

As a result of legalization, some parts of the cannabis plant were removed from the Type 5 narcotics list. These included leaves, stalks, stems, and roots. According to a Bangkok Post report, starting last Jan. 29, individuals, legal entities, government offices, community enterprises, and companies can register to use the legal parts of cannabis and hemp for medical purposes and in the textile, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries.

It was part of the government’s policy to promote hemp and cannabis as new cash crops. In the same report, registrations will be received at the office of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) while in other provinces, each application will be received and processed by provincial public health offices. Applications for the import and export of hemp will have to be submitted to the FDA office.

Cannabis: hemp versus marijuana

Pot, weed, five-fingers, marijuana, and Mary Jane are just common names associated with the cannabis plant. Scientifically it is known as cannabis Sativa. The marijuana plant is shorter with thick leaves, while hemp grows taller and has feathery leaves. Both do not look like they have “five-fingers”. Instead, the web-like leaf has seven or even nine individually serrated leaflets.

The difference extends to its chemical compounds—cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC while marijuana has a higher THC. THC is a psychoactive substance. Both have CBD that is the main component of oil extracts from leaves which is not psychoactive.

Health benefits

According to Healthline and Harvard Health Publishing, cannabis may reduce chronic pain such as migraine, arthritis, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and more. Cannabis may also help reduce inflammation, and also used in treating neurological disorders and for sleep management. It is also used in treating nausea, and weight loss. Known Crossfit athletes, like Mat Fraser and Tia Toomey, use CBD supplements for muscle recovery.

Other medicinal benefits are still being studied including the use of cannabis in treating COVID-19 due to its anti-inflammatory property.

Cannabis, anyone?

As soon as cannabis legalization was announced, coffee shops offering cannabis-laced drinks, and food, as well as cannabis teas, are sprouting across Thailand.

Cafes and shops offer a wide range of cannabis menus, including pizza, tom yum, rice, fried cannabis, cold tea and more. Small-scale entrepreneurs are posting advertisements on Facebook for teas and balms.

Cosmetics makers, drink companies and rubber products businesses are all now investing in developing domestic cannabis farming and products using the plant: Importing hemp and derivatives is allowed only for research purposes. Only companies that are majority-owned by Thais can receive licences to use hemp, under government rules.

Beverage maker Ichitan is already launching drinks made with terpene, a government-approved compound that is also found in cannabis, in what it says is a move to gain public recognition for products of this kind ahead of regulatory approval for its CBD drinks, expected this year.