As the New York Times reports, Thailand’s military government unanimously approved medical marijuana use, which would make it the first country to legalize cannabis use in any form in Southeast Asia. In order to become law, King Maha Vajiralongkorn will need to give his seal of approval as well.
It should be noted that earlier this year, similarly conservative South Korea also legalized medical marijuana and other CBD products, though in that case the drug it will be strictly regulated and dispensed only in special government-run facilities. In Malaysia, a country where drug offenses have long accounted for the largest number of executions, the death penalty has now been abolished and the medicinal value of marijuana is being considered by the government.
Medical marijuana legalization is a big deal for Thailand, a country infamous for its harsh penalties on drug users, including the death penalty. Simply smoking a cigarette in the wrong place there can lead to a year in prison. That’s a long way from the country’s original relationship with the plant.
Thai Sativa cannabis
Thailand’s rich agricultural and culinary history is one place where cannabis has its name on the menu. Prior to its ban, cannabis was used as a spice in Thai boat noodle soup , natively known as kuaytiaw reua. A decadent mix of meatballs, pork, fish offal, Chinese spinach, lemongrass, and galangal root, and rice noodles all swimming in a broth with a dash of pigs blood, Thai boat noodle soup has historically been seasoned with marijuana.
Cannabis was also once extensively used in Thailand for medicinal purposes as well as clothing, where fibers from both marijuana and hemp plants were used in creating fabrics. “It is vital to remember that cannabis is one of the 50 Fundamental Herbs of Chinese Medicine and dates back 4000 years in Asia,” Dr. Jenelle Kim, Founder & Chief Formulator of JBK Wellness Labs, told me in a written interview. “Beginning thousands of year ago, the healing properties of cannabis were used to help balance a variety of conditions – from calming the mind and body, balancing digestive disorders, easing pain and fatigue, among others.”
Thailand has its own famous cannabis strain, that was once one of the country’s largest exports, as well. Thai marijuana is a pure Sativa landrace native to the tropical jungles of Thailand, with high THC-levels brought about from isolated breeding. The marijuana strain is identifiable by the wispy, dandelion-like hairs and pale green to brown clusters of its leaves. The cannabis strain has a citrusy aroma and a comfortable, cerebral high that’s more light and relaxed than sleepy and lethargic.
Because Thai weed buds are dense and heavy, they sometimes trail to the ground as they grow and become larger. It’s because the buds are so heavy that the marijuana is often tied up into a stick-like form. This “Thai Stick” consists of the buds of seedless marijuana skewered on a stem as tell-tale red threads run throughout the marijuana buds. As explained by Honest Marijuana, Co, this “swag shishkabob is then wrapped in fibers from the stalk of the marijuana plant to keep it all together and cured to remove moisture,” creating an extra-large canna-cigar experience.
The Thai stick his is how international soldiers were introduced to Thailand’s sacred and special breed of marijuana during the Vietnam War. Eventually making its way back to the mainland, it’s believed the first Thai marijuana to reach the United States came via the Army Post Office in the 1960’s. “One amazed DEA agent called it ‘the Cuban cigar of the marijuana world,'” The Diplomat wrote.
Trading the stick for a well-regulated carrot
Thailand’s marijuana culture was allowed to do its own thing until 1934 when the country enacted their Marijuana Act. Perceived as mild legislation, penalties for any amount of the plant could not exceed one year in prison under the new laws. It was with this law that American officials were quick to castigate Thai leaders for “tolerating” cannabis.
Things tightened up for marijuana in 1979 when Thailand passed their own Narcotics Act. Prohibiting cannabis use in all its forms, anyone caught producing, exporting, or importing Thai weed under the new laws were subject to between 2 -15 years of imprisonment, and fines up to $40,000.
Though Thailand’s recent move may surprise casual observers, the shift towards more lenient marijuana policies has been years in the making. In 2016, Thailand’s Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya surprised many when he called for the government to decriminalize and regulate marijuana and krathom, a plant native to Thailand with opiate-like effects. Koomchaya called for the changes because, in his view, the strict laws failed to curb the use of the two drugs.
The reversal of Thailand’s policies proves how the war on drugs is often far costlier than the drugs themselves. Thailand has the sixth-largest prison population in the world and the largest in Southeast Asia, largely due to drug incarcerations. In 2003, the country began a “war on drugs” that claimed thousands of lives and led to over 50,000 arrests in just a few months.
Thailand’s history with drugs, including marijuana, was at times violent and bloody. The Human Rights Watch highlighted the crackdown at the time as a grave threat to democratic rule of law in the country. Similar crackdowns have followed throughout the region, most recently in the Philippines where President Rodrigo Duterte’s police forces have killed over 12,000 people in the last two years.
The policy shifts in both Thailand and South Korea towards legal medical cannabis reflect the burgeoning realization that it is a health and wellness issue, not a criminal justice issue. Though both countries maintain a hardline stance towards recreational marijuana use, the legalization of medical marijuana will help change the narrative around cannabis in those countries.
As the U.S. goes, so goes the world
Unlike the U.S., which has seen increasing support for recreational marijuana use throughout the years, the citizens of Thailand and many other Asian countries remain, for the most part, against marijuana use. This is largely due to the influence of the United States.
For much of the twentieth century, the U.S. has made the argument—both domestically and abroad—that marijuana use is tied explicitly to criminal gangs like Mexican cartels, Japan’s yakuza, or China’s triads. And a large part of our foreign policy was aimed at curbing the drug trade. As a result, the anti-marijuana policies that took hold in the U.S. in the 1930s have spread across the globe, and that has ingrained anti-marijuana sentiments into the cultures of many Asian countries.
The U.S. has a long history in Thailand, influencing drug policies and supporting anti-narcotics initiatives. The Drug Enforcement Agency even has offices there. Thus, Thailand’s decision to legalize medical marijuana did not come from intense public pressure put on the government. Rather, Thailand’s change is more a reflection of changing U.S. culture and policies. Policies that have impacted the world.
In 2017 I wrote one of my most widely cited articles about a study entitled “The Tide Effect” from the Adam Smith Institute in the United Kingdom. It argues the growing international “Tide” of mainstream acceptance, broader education and understanding, and ultimate support for legalization of cannabis will ultimately force drug reform in the UK just as it has across the globe.
If cannabis legalization and regulation is, in fact, internationally contagious, the condition has spread across borders in the same way the herb originally navigated its way across the globe and now into Asia.
2018 was a big year for cannabis legalization in the United States. With three more states legalizing marijuana in some capacity, and the return of industrial hemp cultivation thanks to the Farm Bill, a powerful wave and a series of ripples has skipped its way across the Pacific Ocean.
It’s time for the U.S. to take the lead in ending the deadly, costly war on drugs taking place in so many countries—a war that the U.S. has largely sponsored—by adopting Thailand’s stance: that marijuana use is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.
Billions are spent every year on marijuana-related enforcement in the U.S., and the application of the law is oftentimes racially biased. Shifting marijuana regulation from the purview of the Justice Department to the FDA—as the Farm Bill did with hemp—will not only make the U.S. a more just place for many, it will also set the standard for marijuana policies across the globe.
“For a medicinal herb that has been used responsibly for thousands of years as a treatment for pain and fatigue, among other conditions, to be given back is a win for the Thai people and the people who have been denied access to cannabis for decades as a treatment for their condition,” Kim explained.