Thailand’s green gold rush

Thailand beats U.S. to end prohibition of cannabis, decriminalize sale and cultivation, and expunge cannabis convictions

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Graffiti street art spray drawing on stencil. Cannabis leaf symbol on brick wall with flag Thailand
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It was hot and humid, like most June afternoons in Buriram, Thailand. A crowd of over a hundred had gathered in the northern province for a small fair and exhibition, presided over by the nation’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul—who was handing out seedling cannabis plants with a big smile. 

Charnvirakul, who has largely spearheaded the Thai government’s decriminalization movement, gave out 100 free cannabis plants to Thai citizens that day, and the government plans on giving out 1 million more over the next six months. At the beginning of 2022, Thailand announced that it would be decriminalizing cannabis this year, clearing a pathway for home cultivation and entrepreneurship. 

“It is an opportunity for people and the state to earn income from marijuana and hemp,” Charnvirakul wrote in a social media post. “Anyone can sell it if they obey the law.” 

While recreational sales have yet to be officially legalized, this broad-scale decriminalization is the first step in a new era for the Land of Smiles. An era that will see Thailand’s opportunity and tourism revenue skyrocket. And an era that represents a second chance for thousands of people currently serving time in Thailand’s jails.

Cannabis isn’t new to the Thai people or culture. It’s been part of their traditional medicine and cooking for centuries, and was only made illegal in 1935. Since then, though, the Thai government has remained fairly strict about it: If a person was caught smoking cannabis in public, they’d be handed a three-month jail sentence and a $700 (USD) fine. 

However, in 2018 the nation legalized medicinal cannabis. And the levee of prohibition started to show some cracks. 

“​​This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” Somchai Sawangkarn, chairman of the drafting committee, said at the 2018 announcement of Thailand’s medicinal cannabis policy. 

Then, in January, the Thai government’s narcotics board officially announced that the plant was coming off the prohibited drugs list sometime in 2022; people would be allowed to cultivate it at home. And just six months later they followed through, becoming the first Asian country to decriminalize cannabis—beating the U.S. across that finish line as well. 

Under Thailand’s law, Thai citizens can grow up to six plants per-household (which can be sold to hospitals, research facilities or used in food or cosmetics). To produce more than that, a cultivation permit from the government will be required; and any cannabis businesses have to be licensed by the state. Charnvirakul told the Bangkok Post that over 700,000 applications for cannabis permits and licenses have already been submitted. 

“That exceeds the target,” he said. And it indicates how eager the Thai people are to start tapping into this new revenue stream. 

To date (10 years into recreational legalization), cannabis has made almost $13 billion dollars in Colorado alone. Just last year, the state raked in $423 million in tax and fee revenue. And every year, recreational legalization attracts millions of visitors from other states.

Thailand could soon see similar explosions of wealth and tourism traffic as it capitalizes on what many have called a “green gold rush.”

Jonathan Caulkins is an American drug policy researcher who has produced several cannabis reports for the RAND corporation looking at how legalization affects state economies and social welfare. He likens the revenue legal states make off of cannabis tourism to that of casinos in the ’80s.

“Nevada had casinos then, and it was only Nevada,” he says. “And in those years you had tourists from other states coming in spending their money there.”

He also points out that when a legal state borders a densely populated prohibition state, it generates significantly more revenue, as people cross state lines to make their purchases. That applies to countries too. 

“Thailand could draw tourists from [prohibition nations] as a place to get away from [their] own country’s rules, to indulge,” Caulkins says. Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Chinese all travel to Thailand in droves throughout the year, and all come from countries with standing cannabis prohibitions. 

While the revenue possibilities will soon make a huge difference in Thailand, the expungement aspect of this policy will immediately benefit people suffering in the county. With this announcement, some 4,000 prisoners currently serving jail-time for cannabis offenses will not only be released, but their records will be wiped clean. It’s a progressive step for a county that only recently started breaking down cannabis prohibition, and one that the U.S. could surely learn from. According to the ACLU, 40,000 Americans are currently behind bars for cannabis crimes, even though it’s been fully legalized in 19 states. 

Thailand has yet to set forth a comprehensive law for regulating recreational cannabis, now that it’s been decriminalized. But business owners are already taking steps to position themselves for when their parliament does. One business owner who has already started selling cannabis flowers at her shop, alongside her terpene-infused gummies, told ABC News she knows tighter regulations are coming. But for now, cannabis has “become as free as garlic [and] as chili.” 

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Email the author at wbrendza@boulderweekly.com

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