Thailand has high hopes cannabis can cure the coronavirus blues, but for grass roots it’s a buzzkill

  • Legalisation of hemp products means cannabis cookies and CBD medicinal oils could boost the mood of an economy laid low by Covid-19
  • Investors and tycoons will feel the high but grass roots farmers without the right connections will be left feeling low, critics say

The buzz over Thailand’s cannabis industry is getting feverous, with its most excited backers suggesting the production and sale of hemp-based goods from chocolate drops to cookies and CBD medicinal oils could be the perfect antidote for a Southeast Asian economy laid low by coronavirus.

But buzzkill critics warn it is investors and tycoons that stand to benefit from Thailand’s “green rush”, rather than ordinary workers and farmers who have seen their incomes shredded by Covid-19.

While Thais have for generations used cannabis leaves in noodle soups and for pain relief – with the plant growing best in the elevated, pH neutral soils and balmy temperatures of the country’s north and northeast – it is only recently that cannabis products have been legally available.

A signature drink garnished with an artificial weed leaf from Highland Café. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Thailand legalised the use of cannabis, also known as marijuana, for medical purposes in 2019, after years of tortured discussion. However, it was not until January of this year that a further law change paved the way for a commercialisation of the industry, with licence holders now able to grow, sell and export goods made from the stems, leaves and roots of hemp – a variety of the cannabis plant grown specifically for industrial use.

Hemp cookies at a recent tasting event in Bangkok. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee
Hemp cookies at a recent tasting event in Bangkok. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Consequently investors are now salivating at the prospect of a Thai weed empire as cannabis products ranging from CBD oils for pain relief to hemp snacks and soaps finally hit the market.

“Thailand is going to be a US$50 billion [cannabis] business, from growth and extraction [of CBD] to products in the next five years,” said Tom Kruesopon, a veteran Thai investor.

“For this region, Thailand is the only game in town for the foreseeable future,” he added.

Thai law allows the extraction of CBD – the cannabidiol compound – from the cannabis plant for its reputed medicinal benefits, which span from aiding sleep to easing inflammation and pain. However, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the psychoactive part of the plant that causes the user’s “high” – remains illegal and must be separated in a complex process.

Backers of the fledgling industry predict that Thai firms will soon be exporting cannabis-based cosmetics, snacks and toothpastes, while medical tourists will pour in to use high-quality CBD oils at wellness facilities.

Guests take a photo of a cannabis plant at a hemp promotion event. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee
Guests take a photo of a cannabis plant at a hemp promotion event. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos are looking up to us. We will be the experienced friend for our neighbouring countries … we can work with them to build our own regional economy,” said

Kris Thirakaosal, the managing director of Golden Triangle Group, which has cultivated its own motherplant called Raksa, a strain high in CBD content, in northern Chiang Rai.

“I’d like to follow the footsteps of vitamin makers. That’s what the future of cannabis/cannabinoids is all about – health and wellness rather than getting high.”

WHAT ABOUT THE GRASS ROOTS?

At a swish Bangkok restaurant, a who’s who of Thailand’s cannabis players came out for a recent hemp tasting and promotional event hosted by the cannabis-focused consultancy Elevated Estate.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who has headlined the legalisation drive, met celebrities and investors while guests sampled ganja ice cream and discussed the health benefits of hemp-based dental products.

“Like all plants, this plant has both good and bad uses. Sugar is sweet for you if you have only one small spoon, same as salt and chilli,” Anutin said.

CBD oral care products. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee
CBD oral care products. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

“As long as Thai people know how to use the useful parts of this plant and never compromise on quality or exceed the legal use of this plant, the sky’s the limit for this business.”

However, while hemp products have been legalised, a complex web of licences and provisions tightly control cultivation, sale and development.

Meanwhile, smoking, growing or selling marijuana for recreational purposes remains illegal and can attract heavy punishments, with jail terms of up to five years for possession of less than 10kg and up to 15 years for possession of, or intent to sell, more than 10kg.

Critics say the morass of laws will exclude ordinary people and independent farmers from benefiting from the country’s more liberal stance.

“The government needs to unlock everything, because if they don’t the benefits will fall only into the hands of tycoons,” said Chuwit Kamolvisit, a massage parlour owner turned colourful politician, who is exploring cannabis business ventures.

“I’m far too familiar with the Thai-style governance – you can smell it, but you can’t eat it, you can chew it, but you must not swallow it,” he added.

One of the original marijuana-themed café ‘Highland’ in Bangkok. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee
One of the original marijuana-themed café ‘Highland’ in Bangkok. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Farmers can in theory grow six plants each at home. But they need first to establish a cooperative and gain a licence in a country where connections are needed to cut through the bureaucracy.

The government has promised to buy top grade dried flowers with a CBD concentration of 12 per cent for 45,000 baht (USD$1,450) a kilo from those co-operatives. A kilo of rice goes for up to 240 baht.

But uptake has been limited so far – with just 82 co-ops registered so far, according to the government.

“It’s just dreams the government sells to the poor,” an illegal cannabis plant grower said.

“Grass roots people will have no access to the industry without good connections and money. I’ve spent over a million baht (US$33,000) to master my growing techniques – what resources do farmers have?”

There are currently over 300 medical cannabis clinics registered across Thailand and another 400 traditional medicine centres, which are allowed to prescribe cannabis oils.

But the green rush has left some of Thailand’s original cannabis advocates feeling queasy.

Chokwan ‘Kitty’ Chopaka, founder of Elevated Estate and the country’s first marijuana-themed cafe ‘Highland’, said government and public knowledge of the benefits and uses of hemp had been lost as “the money monster has got a hold of everyone”.

On her wish list is the wider legalisation of hemp seeds as a superfood so one of Asia’s culinary capitals can pivot its cooking skills to feed a vast, new market of healthy eaters and deal-in poor farmers in the process.

“That’s where Thailand should focus and empower farmers to take part.”

By : Vijitra Duangdee – SCMP

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