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Thailand removes cannabis from narcotics list, decriminalises growing plants at home
Thailand has become the first country in Asia to take marijuana off its list of banned substances and to allow people to grow the plant at home.
It's a major policy shift in a country long known for its harsh drug controls, but the Thai government hopes the law change will boost the wellness and tourism industries.
In January this year, Thai authorities announced they were dropping cannabis from the official list of controlled substances, resulting in what some have described as de facto decriminalisation.
Some 4,000 prisoners serving jail time for cannabis-related crimes will soon be released and their criminal records for those offences will be deleted, the Department of Corrections said.
Thailand's Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul last month took to Facebook to declare his intention to give away 1 million cannabis plants to members of the public.
"It is an opportunity for people and the state to earn income from marijuana and hemp," he wrote, alongside a photo of cooked chicken seasoned with cannabis.
"Roasted marijuana chicken, 300 baht ($12) per piece. Anyone can sell it if they obey the law," Mr Anutin added.
"This is the future of Thai cannabis."
Mr Anutin, who first announced the new policy in 2021, said at the time that families would be allowed to grow up to six cannabis pot plants, with the view of them supplying the crop to public hospitals, research facilities, or for use in the production of food or cosmetics.
The Kingdom's military-dominated government seeks to make Thailand a regional centre for the production and distribution of medical marijuana.
Under the law, any cannabis extract must have a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the main psychoactive component of marijuana — concentration of less than 0.2 per cent.
Large-scale growers require permits from the government.
Kitty Chopaka, a Bangkok-based cannabis entrepreneur, will begin selling cannabis flowers at her shop on Saturday — after the plant is formally removed from Thai authorities' list of controlled substances.
Ms Chopaka, who sells terpene-infused gummies, told the ABC the changes meant the plant would "become as free as garlic, as chilli".
"But that doesn't mean there are no rules. It just means that the rules are in process … depending on how long it's going to take in parliament," she said.
A comprehensive law for regulating cannabis is yet to pass parliament.
Ms Chopaka said private cannabis and hemp businesses established in recent years had not been able to be listed on the Thai stock exchange, which had prevented their ability to attract investment.
And because establishing the infrastructure for the extraction of cannabis was expensive — costing 100-300 million baht ($4-12 million) — the growth of the industry and its export market had been held back, she said.
"As much as I whine about all the rules and the regulations that are sometimes not fair, there are things that have to be done," Ms Chopaka added.
In a separate Facebook post earlier this month, Mr Anutin said the policy was focused on "health and medical use, not on entertainment".
He emphasised that unlike alcohol and cigarettes, cannabis had benefits if "used wisely", and the law change was not aimed at allowing it to be used for intoxication.
Penalties for creating "public nuisance" with recreational use would still apply, he said.
Offenders reported to authorities could face up to three months' jail or fines of up to 25,000 baht.
Like many of its neighbours, Thailand had long imposed heavy penalties for possession and use of cannabis, among other drugs, despite a long history of local marijuana use for medicinal and cooking purposes.
But the kingdom became the first country in South-East Asia to legalise medical cannabis in 2018.
The government at the time described the change as a "New Year's gift" to the Thai people.
Authorities hope Thai farmers and business owners will benefit from the production of the crop, cashing in on a global legal cannabis market expected to be worth $US91.5 billion ($175.5 billion) by 2028, according to Grand View Research, a San Francisco-based company.
In 2020, the government launched the first cannabis clinic in Bangkok, after approving the use of cannabis extracts for treatment of conditions such as cancer, epilepsy and anxiety.
Jiratti Kuttanam, a single mother who is battling breast cancer uses cannabis as a painkiller, drinking it in tea and smoking it.
She said it had taken "way too long" for Thailand to delist cannabis as a controlled substance.
"I'm so happy I don't have to hide anymore to buy it or use it," Ms Kuttanam, who plans to grow her own marijuana, told the ABC.
"It (the illness) is painful and I don't want to take painkillers all the time," she said, adding that cannabis helped her sleep and maintain a healthy appetite.
"It's not painful at all after you use it."
Ms Kuttanam said the government should educate members of the public about how to grow marijuana properly so they could grow it themselves, rather than pay money to large-scale growers.
"Cannabis is fast becoming accepted as a medicine," said Michael Sassano, the chief executive of European cannabis product manufacturer Somai Pharmaceuticals.
"Clearly a country like Thailand making a step to decriminalise and acknowledge the medicinal aspects of cannabis is positive for the whole region."
However, it is "more a symbolic first step than a complete game changer for Asia", he said.
A YouGov poll from March 2022 showed that 76 per cent of Thais were aware of commercially available cannabis products, while almost half had used a product containing cannabis in the past two years.
Ms Chopaka said she was looking forward to paying her taxes on the sales after the delisting.
But Sarana Sommano, an associate professor of agriculture at Chiangmai University, warned the changes did not mean Thailand was welcoming the recreational use of cannabis.
She said while some ministers had spoken about cannabis use for the public, this was "misleading" and the comments were made for political purposes given "it was approaching the end of the government term".
Thailand's next national elections are expected in 2023.
"There is no expectation that this move by Thailand will lead to dispensaries for recreational style access to cannabis derivatives," Mr Sassano said.
After Grace was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to medicinal cannabis. But getting it legally was a challenge, so she's sticking with the black market — and experts say her experience is common.
Dr Sommano said the current system of registration for growers was open to corruption and that while she supported cannabis being used for medicinal purposes in principle, she felt "the nation does not gain anything from this at all".
She said businesses had to pay to get permission to grow cannabis, and the fees were "not cheap" and permits needed to be renewed.
Corruption remains a major problem in Thailand, which ranked 110 out of 180 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2021.
"So, who would benefit from all this?" Dr Sommano asked, adding that plans surrounding the control and "misuse" of cannabis remained unclear.
Recreational use of cannabis is legal in some US states, in Canada, Uruguay, South Africa, Mexico and in the Australian Capital Territory.
It has been legal to possess up to 50 grams of cannabis and to grow and consume cannabis in one's own home in the ACT since 2019.
Prescriptions for medical marijuana across Australia, meanwhile, have increased substantially in recent years.
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