Thailand’s move to become Asia’s “medical marijuana hub”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thailand will break new ground by legalising marijuana for medical use and research. It must act decisively to capitalise on the opportunities this will present.

By John Pennington

Thailand wants to become a “medical marijuana hub”. As the first country in Asia to confirm it will legalise marijuana for medical use and research, it has a head-start on its neighbours. The proposal is expected to become law by May 2019 at the latest.

However, foreign companies are trying to move in and take over licenses for marijuana production in the country. That would enable them to control the lucrative market. It would freeze local researchers and producers out.

Marijuana has enormous economic potential for Thailand

It is not just the proposed law change and the long history of marijuana growth that puts Thailand in a strong position. “Marijuana is Thailand’s future cash crop,” claimed Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong. Thailand’s climate is ideal for marijuana growth. It therefore costs less to produce marijuana in Thailand than it does in other countries.

“I’m doing this because it’s an opportunity for Thai people,” explained Dr Jet Sirathraanon, chairman of the National Legislative Assembly’s public health standing committee. “Thailand has the best marijuana in the world,” he added. It would enter the market with a reputation for producing a quality product.

Furthermore, Thailand’s health sector is already booming, thanks in part to medical tourism. Medical tourism may even increase. As the only country in Asia using marijuana for medicinal purposes, those in nearby countries could head to Thailand to take advantage.

Marijuana is a hugely lucrative global market

Not only can cannabis alleviate suffering for those with chronic conditions, but it will generate enormous revenues. As countries are only allowed to trade medicinal cannabis, Thailand will gain entry to a market that is regulated. By producing unique strains, Thailand stands to gain a slice of that growing market.

More and more countries are starting to relax the rules on marijuana, both for use as a medicinal drug, for research, and recreationally. As a result, the market is set to boom in the coming years. Estimates of its value range between US$50 billion and US$55.8 billion by 2025.

Others may also benefit. Farmers could earn more if they take a share of the profits. Retailers could develop energy drinks infused with the product. They could then export those around the world.

Thailand is late to the market and could take time to establish itself

Thailand will enter the market behind others. For example, Canada has made significant strides in developing strains ready for global export. In Thailand’s defence, it had a 17-year head-start. Those behind the move feel Thailand has delayed long enough already.

The government has reportedly invested US$3.6 million in research and development. University teams are working on producing strains ready for medicinal use. However, there have been no clinical trials. There is a risk that Thailand may take too long to benefit from the proposed law changes. By the time they develop strains ready for export, other countries may have moved further ahead.

Scientists in Thailand may have been secretly developing strains before the law change was mooted. If they have, that will boost Thailand’s chances of getting products to market quickly. Its reputation as a producer of quality marijuana will still attract buyers – however long that takes. The big question is: can Thailand close that gap? And if so, how quickly?

What might happen next?

The government faces protests and legal action if it allows foreign companies control. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha is moving closer to invoking executive powers to protect Thai marijuana from foreign influence.

Under the 2014 constitution, he has the power to make any order to stop threats to the national economy. At first, the government seemed happy to wait and let the legislative process play out. However, if Prayut wants Thailand to become a major player in the marijuana market, he may need to act quickly.

Eleven foreign companies have already registered patents. They include Britain’s GW Pharmaceuticals and Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical. As Jim Plamondon, VP of the Thai Cannabis Corporation advises, “Any company that is serious about cannabis should start moving its supply chain to Thailand.”

More may follow but there is no guarantee they will succeed. Prayut and the Thai government are determined to avoid foreign hands grabbing Thai marijuana profits.

The Department of Intellectual Property has already rejected applications that were trying to illegally patent plant extracts. Prayut is preparing to use his executive powers to deal with the others. “I’m writing a new order under Section 44,” he declared, adding that he would make sure it did not contravene existing international patent law.

The government must strike a delicate balance

On the other hand, onlookers are concerned that the government could take control of every stage of production and export. They may see an opportunity to profit themselves rather than passing down the benefits to researchers, farmers and retailers.

The government must tread carefully and act decisively. The challenge facing Prayut is two-fold: ensure Thailand’s advantage is not lost and pass on the benefits appropriately. It seems inconceivable that he will stand by and allow foreign companies unfettered access to Thailand’s marijuana.

Thus, the junta is faced with a rare opportunity. By guaranteeing Thai control of the market, it can put in place a policy that is good for the country’s economy, the health of its citizens and its public approval. It will surely grab it with both hands.