Medical marijuana and kratom became legal in Thailand on February 18 after the king signed a royal decree allowing doctors, patients, schools, farmers, entrepreneurs and exporters to cultivate, possess and dispense both drugs.

The decree has raised hopes among many Thais that the legalization of recreational marijuana will be next.

King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun signed the medical law two months after the military government’s parliament unanimously approved it. The decree was published in the Royal Gazette, as constitutionally required, and said the Narcotics Act of 1979 was amended to make medical marijuana legal.

Patients with prescriptions can now receive medical marijuana and kratom; farmers need a Narcotics Control Board permit to produce the drugs. Recreational use of both drugs is still illegal. Possession of illegal cannabis is punishable by up to 15 years in jail under the amended law.

Most of Thailand’s medical marijuana and kratom is initially expected to be imported from the United States, Canada, Israel and other nations which have professional health standards for drug manufacturing.

Commercial medical-grade marijuana and kratom must be produced in strictly controlled facilities, which generally cost millions of dollars to construct, staff and operate. That will make it difficult for Thailand to quickly produce enough medical marijuana or kratom to meet the needs of the kingdom’s Thai and foreign patients.

Israeli medical cannabis producers are expected to generate significant government revenue. Image: iStock
A marijuana leaf juxtaposed against a commercial marijuana field. Image: iStock

Locally grown kratom plants are described as a way to boost energy, lessen pain and depression, and possibly treat heroin addiction.

Every Thai adult could earn US$13,000 a year from six personal marijuana plants if the law is relaxed for recreational use, according to Anutin Charnvirakul, an ambitious politician in next month’s general elections.

Recreational marijuana would become Thailand’s biggest cash crop, Anutin, who’s Bhum Jai Thai party is campaigning on a full legalization platform, has predicted.

Predictions of a weed boom recently convinced coup-installed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to fast-track legalization for marijuana and kratom — initially for medical use only — a move that has resonated at Thailand’s grass roots.

The March 24 election for a new House of Representatives could see Prayut extend his premiership, which began when he seized power in the name of stability by toppling an elected government in May 2014.

Anti-junta parties, however, hope to win enough House seats to form a coalition against Prayut. Anutin’s middle-sized, pro-marijuana Bhum Jai Thai party may join whichever larger party comes out on top, so that it can enact its policies.

Anutin’s party recently erected campaign billboards illustrated with a bright green marijuana leaf to inform voters about its proposal to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana.

A Bhumj Jai Thai Party election poster promoting marijuana legalization in Bangkok, February 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrrumpha

Anutin said Washington’s “political propaganda” during the 1960s and 70s tricked Thailand into believing marijuana was “addictive.” That “propaganda” campaign came while many US troops were getting blitzed on powerful local marijuana known as “Thai Sticks” while stationed at air bases in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

“During the Vietnam war, the reason why the US made the announcement that marijuana was part of the narcotic drugs, was because once all the [US] soldiers consumed this kind of substance, they could sleep. It made people calm down. It didn’t make people become aggressive,” Anutin said at a recent press event.

Anutin runs one of Thailand’s biggest construction firms, Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction, and directs other big companies. He graduated with an engineering degree from New York’s Hofstra University.

He was speaking at a “Marijuana, For Money or Medicine?” panel at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on February 13.

“We have five types of commercial crops — rice, palm [oil], rubber, tapioca and sugar cane. Why don’t we just add one more? The record shows that this [marijuana] will override the first five” with bigger profits, Anutin said. His party has studied “the ‘California model’ on this marijuana thing,” to learn about legalizing recreational cannabis, he said.

Anutin tells voters he will amend the laws so “each household will be able to grow six plants. Each plant will contribute one kilogram, so each plant will earn 70,000 baht ($2,225),” by his estimate.

“If you have six plants, that house will have 420,000 baht ($13,350) per family. And when people [children] become mature, we can split the family [so each adult child] can also grow another six plants.”

Bhum Jai Thai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul. Photo: AFP Forum via Bangkok Post/Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

Legal growing, selling and consuming of medical and recreational marijuana should be similar to tobacco, which is controlled monopolized by the Tobacco Authority of Thailand (TAOT) corporation, Anutin said.

Tobacco farmers must sell to the TAOT, which produces cigarettes, conducts research, determines quality, and works with the government to prevent any illegal tobacco trade.

“I always tell Mr. Anutin, he’s going to bring back Thailand’s main [tourism] slogan, ‘Land of Smiles’,” said Thai entrepreneur Julpas “Tom” Kruesopon.

Julpas is advising Anutin on marijuana’s commercial and presumably vote-getting potential. He served previously as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s adviser and was former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s deputy press secretary during the 1990s.

“Bhum Jai Thai is basically saying, ‘Let’s go ahead and do medical and recreational at the same time’,” Julpas said at the press conference.

Anutin’s party was “very concerned that if only medical [marijuana] was approved in Thailand, the price of the medicine would be so high because only a few [Thai facilities] will be able to manufacture it,” Julpas said.

“You might not know this, for all you foreigners here, if you visit a Thai noodle shop, you’ve probably been having noodles with marijuana for quite a while. We put marijuana into our food. That’s why Thai food tastes so good.”

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.