Patients wait to register for cannabidiol oil treatment during the opening of a cannabis clinic at the Department of Development of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine in Bangkok on January 6, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mladen Antonov

On June 9, Thailand formally removed cannabis and hemp from its list of Schedule V drugs. The exclusion of cannabis from that category means that it can be grown at home for culinary or medicinal purposes. Thais now can also experience the medical and health benefits of cannabis by consuming edibles, teas, and coffees containing the substance, as well as by smoking cannabis in private.

Those who wish to cultivate cannabis for commercial purposes must obtain authorization from the government.

A degree in cannabis science, anyone?

Universities offering cannabis degrees are not new. In the United States, several universities have embarked on cannabis studies. In 2016, the University of Vermont and Ohio State University declared cannabis a legitimate subject of study.

But a degree in cannabis science would be another step toward making Thailand a cannabis hotspot in Southeast Asia.

In 2019, Rangsit University in Thailand was the first to offer classes in marijuana studies. Since then other universities have embarked on cannabis research. Among them are Suranaree University of Technology in Nakhon Ratchasima, Maejo University in Chiang Mai, and Rajamangala University of Technology Isan (RMUTI) Khon Kaen Campus.

Jongkasem Julakham-Platon, a restaurateur and proprietor of the Bangkok-based Filipino-Thai restaurant Toto Inasal, has teamed with the Waldo18 organization. That outfit offers supply chains for the cultivation, processing, and sale of medicinal plants and their derivatives.

The Office of the Higher Education Commission of Thailand (OHEC) has accredited the Waldo Institute of Phetchaburi’s education and research department. The Waldo Institute is overseen by the Suan Sunandhta Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Science. The institute provides consultation, training, cross-breeding trials, and so forth.

“The institute provides bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in cannabis science,” Jongkasem explained in an interview. “In addition, they are creating a new breed known as the Rocher breed. This cannabis strain has a high resistance and survival rate. Toto Inasal will also assist with the experimenting of cannabis products with food and beverages.”

Hemp vs marijuana

Although they are both members of the Cannabis genus, there is a difference between hemp and marijuana. Marijuana strains (indica) are shorter and have thicker leaves, while hemp (sativa) grows taller and has feathery leaves.

The distinction extends to the chemical compounds – cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, whereas marijuana has a higher concentration.

Psychoactive substances include THC. CBD, the principal constituent in leaf-oil extracts, is non-psychoactive and is present in both cannabis and hemp. Recently, scientists and academics have asserted that there is no distinction and only one strain of cannabis, Cannabis sativa L.

Will ASEAN follow suit?

“It is too soon to tell if ASEAN nations will follow Thailand’s example. If Thailand’s market acquires traction, cannabis will be exported. As a result, there is a greater possibility that other ASEAN nations may explore legalizing cannabis in order to capture a portion of the global market,” Jongkasem said.

“Muslim nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, and the Philippines, which is dominated by Catholicism, may not be at the top of the list, but they may be consumers of cannabis derivatives,” she added.

In December 2018, Thailand became the first country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to legalize cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Initially, only state-run hospitals were permitted to provide cannabis oil (CBD oil) to patients undergoing chemotherapy and suffering from a variety of chronic diseases per a doctor’s prescription.

Because of evidence that certain cannabis-based products have medicinal benefits, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified cannabis from Schedule IV to Schedule I in January 2019. Schedule IV includes the most hazardous substances, such as heroin and carfentanil, a synthetic opioid.

In response, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNODC) removed cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But the majority of nations in the Southeast Asian region have yet to examine this.

Some regions in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines are devoted to cannabis cultivation. Southeast Asia has a rich history with cannabis. The exact date of its introduction to Thailand and the rest of the region is largely unknown. Ganja is a Sanskrit term as well as the Thai name for marijuana. It has been utilized as a medicine, particularly as a painkiller, as well as a food, flavoring and fabric, and for its psychedelic properties.

In Vietnam, small-scale cannabis cultivation is punishable by a fine of 2 million to 5 million dong (US$86-$215) and a prison sentence of six months, while those planting on a wider scale could get seven years and fines.

Cannabis is prohibited in Cambodia, yet “happy restaurants” offer cannabis-infused dishes around the country.

Cannabis is banned in Laos, despite the fact that it is widely cultivated and consumed as food by numerous Indigenous groups.

Both Laos and Cambodia intend to investigate cannabis for medical uses.

Cannabis is a controlled substance in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore. Offenders face incarceration or, at worst, the death penalty.

The government of Myanmar prohibits cannabis sales and distribution. If proven guilty, the perpetrator may be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in jail, with no maximum length of term. They also face the possibility of being sentenced to death.

Under Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, cannabis consumption and possession are punishable by imprisonment and fines of up to 10 million pesos in the Philippines.

Chuck Manansala, president of Masikhay Research, a medical-cannabis research center based in the Philippines, deems the legalization of cannabis in his country unlikely – for the time being.

Since 2014, Manansala and his group have advocated for the use of medical cannabis. He was also a member of the group that wrote the first measure to legalize medical cannabis in the Philippines and submit it to the House of Representatives. Representative Rodolfo Albano III of Isabela sponsored the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act as House Bill 4477. It was reintroduced later and is currently up for a vote as House Bill 180.

‘Cured illegally’

In 2010 Jheck Alcera was afflicted by insomnia, depression and alcoholism. She claimed that cannabis “healed” her, albeit “illegally” because of the stigma surrounding it, as well as the treatment of those who possess it as criminals.

In 2017, Alcera met fellow cannabis activists at the Philippine Cannabis Compassion Society, a group consisting of doctors, lawyers, and others afflicted with a variety of diseases.

Alcera asserts, “No one should be incarcerated due to a plant.”

Manansala explains: “The benefits of legalizing marijuana exceed its drawbacks. Advocacy groups must promote the subject and engage in robust educational campaigns until the ideology of the war on drugs has been neutralized.”

During the interview, Manansala said these initiatives must be grounded on science, human rights, and the notion of body sovereignty.

According to Jongkasem, the use of cannabis in traditional Asian medicine is not novel.

The only downside of cannabis is the prejudice of the individuals who use it. There are laws in place, the populace is well-informed, and the government has conducted several tests and risk assessments. “I believe there will be no problems whatsoever,” Jongkasem said.

Additionally, Thailand intends to distribute a million cannabis seedlings nationwide. On June 10, 1,000 seedlings were distributed in Buriram province by the Ministry of Health.

The Cannabis Dispensary in Bangkok, which debuted on June 9, also sells cannabis leaves for private smoking. Many cannabis coffee shops in Bangkok and neighboring provinces sell edibles, drinks, and oils.

At this writing, however, cannabis and its derivatives, such as edibles, cosmetics, and oils, must not be taken outside of Thailand. Or you will face consequences.

Eunice Barbara C Novio

Eunice Barbara C Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared on Asian Correspondent, America Media, and The Nation. She is also a contributor to the Bangkok Post and Thai Enquirer and a stringer to Inquirer.net's US Bureau. She won a Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club.