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Thailand legalizes marijuana — with gray areas and caveats

A man weighs cannabis flowers for a customer at a cannabis cafe in Bangkok on June 9. (Diego Azubel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Thailand on Thursday made legal the growth and trade of marijuana within set parameters — becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to do so.

Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told CNN that he hopes the move will help boost the country’s ailing economy, particularly its agricultural sector, which has been hit hard by rising fertilizer costs amid disruptions in the global supply chain.

The country’s tropical climate makes for an ideal place to cultivate the plant — and the government has taken steps to establish it as a cash crop. The health minister said last month that the government would distribute a million free cannabis plants, to jump-start the sector.

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Although Thailand legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2018, Anutin warns that those who are caught using the drug in “nonproductive ways,” such as smoking joints outside, will still be met with harsh penalties, and could face up to three months behind bars and a fine of about $780. Officials said they were not looking to cultivate marijuana-fueled tourism.

“We [have always] emphasized using cannabis extractions and raw materials for medical purposes and for health,” Anutin told CNN. “There has never once been a moment that we would think about advocating people to use cannabis in terms of recreation — or use it in a way that it could irritate others.”

While that might be the official line, the changes in practice are likely to create substantial gray areas. A Health Ministry official told Reuters that nearly 100,000 people had already registered, on a government app called PlookGanja, to grow marijuana legally. There appears to be limited inclination to actively monitor what people are growing and smoking for their own use, the Associated Press reported.

The Thai Food and Drug Administration has removed marijuana and hemp from its Category 5 narcotics list, allowing cafes and restaurants across the country to serve cannabis-infused products that have no more than 0.2 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s main psychoactive compound.

According to the Thai Industrial Hemp Trade Association, the market value of marijuana-related businesses is estimated at more than $1 billion and is expected to nearly double by 2024. The Global Cannabis Report, a trade publication, says the legal marijuana market is worth $100 billion worldwide.

Uruguay and Canada are the only two countries that have fully legalized the recreational use of marijuana. As of 2018, the possession and consumption of cannabis were made legal in Georgia. Most recently, in late 2021, Malta became the first European Union country to legalize recreational cannabis for personal use. A Supreme Court ruling in Mexico last year could open the door to legalization there.

But some places have moved in the opposite direction. This week, Hong Kong’s government announced plans to criminalize the manufacture, import, export, sale and possession of products containing CBD, a chemical extracted from cannabis that does not induce a high and is marketed to address anxiety and sleeplessness.