23 May 2024

Cannabis and kratom completed their long journeys to legalization this year, in what was seen as an uncharacteristically liberal move by conservative Thai authorities. Given that alcohol and cigarettes remain tightly controlled in Thailand, these once-banned herbs have come a long way in a short space of time.

The newly amended Narcotics Code, which went into effect on December 9, lists neither cannabis nor kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) as illicit drugs. These herbs are now being touted for their huge potential in helping both patients and the Thai economy.

The change in their status has much to do with the efforts of Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, whose Bhumjaithai Party made legalization of cannabis a key election promise.

Currently, all parts except the buds and flowers of cannabis are legal, but the herb can only be used in medicine and certain products such as food and cosmetics. Recreational cannabis is still illegal, though there are signs that this too could change in the future.

Thousands of farmers have already formed community enterprises to grow cannabis, while big companies like JCK International are investing large sums and drawing up solid business plans to exploit this once-illegal plant. Restaurant chains like Black Canyon have also come up with cannabis-spiked dishes for adventurous customers.

Anutin has managed to get several cannabis-based medicines included in the list of national drugs. This means public hospitals can prescribe cannabis remedies to patients under the universal healthcare scheme.

Meanwhile, cannabis clinics are mushrooming across Thailand. Research indicates that medical marijuana can combat symptoms related to cancer and Parkinson’s disease, including nausea, pain, and inflammation. Scientists have also reported that cannabis can slow growth in certain types of cancer cells grown in the lab, though research is still at an early stage.

Model marijuana city

On December 11, Anutin visited Nakhon Phanom and declared it Thailand’s “Cannabis City”. The destination in the Northeast will become a model for the nationwide development of cannabis to boost the economy and tourism. While there, Anutin checked out various products, beverages, and food made from the herb.

Anutin, who is also deputy prime minister, has directed the Food and Drug Administration, Government Pharmaceutical Organization, Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine, and the Medical Cannabis Institute to look for ways to maximize cannabis’s potential as Thailand enters a global market worth an estimated US$20.5 billion (Bt685 billion) in 2020.

Thailand approved marijuana for medical use back in 2019, but until this year several laws stood in the way of widespread usage while the outbreak of COVID-19 also stalled development.

However, removal from the narcotics list has sparked growing public recognition and acceptance of the herb. With complicated legal obstacles now lifted, cannabis growers and consumers no longer have to worry about getting in trouble with the law.

Fried cannabis leaves and minced pork with ingredients at the Abhaibhubejhr Spa Cuisine restaurant at the Abhaibhubejhr Day Spa, next to Chao Phraya Aphaiphubet Hospital in Prachinburi. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP)

Everyday affair

Cannabis is following in the footsteps of kratom. Long considered a narcotic, kratom has seen thousands of users and sellers land in jail over recent decades. However, its status changed in 2019 when the government revised the narcotics law allowing both kratom and marijuana to be used for medical purposes.

However, it was not until August 24 this year that kratom was removed from the list of controlled substances altogether, and related legal penalties were nullified.

By October, kratom had made it to the shelves of superstores, online shops, and markets. Plantations of the herb now span more than 100,000 rai or 160square kilometers in Thailand.

Recognizing the plant’s potential, the Industry Ministry is now promoting kratom as an economic crop. Mitragynine, an alkaloid present in kratom, acts as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory and can also treat diarrhea and weight issues. The herb has also been used successfully to aid withdrawal from opiate addiction.

Several listed food-and-beverage companies are planning to add kratom to their products, including energy-drink seller Carabao Group.

However, the Kratom Bill has not yet been passed by Parliament. On Dec 14, the Senate revised the bill to tighten health protections.

Despite their proven benefits, both kratom and cannabis come with the danger of side effects. Recognizing that rewards come with risks, Thai authorities are carefully regulating their consumption.

By Thai PBS World’s General desk