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Thailand's 'marijuana wonderland': 5 things to know

Cannabis can only be grown and consumed for medical purposes or health promotion

Thailand decriminalized medical marijuana cultivation and possession on June 9, a step toward possible full legalization of the psychotropic. (Source photo by Reuters)

BANGKOK -- Thailand has become the first country in Asia to decriminalize marijuana. The health authority on Thursday excluded cannabis from a list of narcotics, giving people a way to cultivate and use the herb at home.

Some pro-cannabis supporters say Thailand will become a "marijuana wonderland," but in actuality, cannabis can only be grown and consumed for medical purposes, and those who smoke it in public face heavy penalties.

Nikkei Asia explains what has changed and what remains illegal. But let's start slowly.

What is marijuana?

The word usually refers to the flower buds or dried leaves of the cannabis plant. Among the plant's hundreds of chemicals is tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient that produces the high that marijuana users chase.

Some 50 countries allow patients to use prescription medical marijuana -- the plant manages chronic pain in older adults, can help some insomniacs sleep and relieves the vomiting and nausea cancer patients come down with after undergoing chemotherapy -- but only Canada and Uruguay allow it to be used for fun.

Using marijuana may cause brain and other disorders. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recent research estimates that "approximately 3 in 10 people who use marijuana have marijuana use disorder," a kind of dependency.

A woman takes a drop of the cannabis-based medication DTAM. Thailand began allowing people to use marijuana for health purposes in 2019.   © Reuters

What is legal and what remains illegal about marijuana in Thailand?

With the delisting of marijuana as a narcotic, farmers and individuals in Thailand can now grow medicinal pot. Cannabis can also be used for health promotion. Any Thai can grow a marijuana plant if they first tell the government they are doing so via a website or smartphone app.

Industrial and commercial marijuana growers, including companies, must obtain licenses from the Food and Drug Authority.

Cafes and restaurants can serve THC-infused food and drinks, though the THC level must be less than 0.2%.

While the possession of marijuana is not considered illegal, using it as a party drug or for other recreational purposes remains prohibited. The same goes for smoking cannabis in public. Violators are subject to fines of up to 25,000 baht ($723) and prison terms of up to three months.

Pro-cannabis activists walk in Bangkok in April, demanding that the Thai government legalize marijuana use.   © Getty Images

Can foreign tourists smoke marijuana in Thailand?

Yes and no. They can smoke it for medical or health promotion purposes. Any other use could land a tourist in prison.

Although some online media have touted Thailand as a new cannabis paradise, health minister Anutin Charnvirakul recently told CNN that the country "will [only] promote cannabis policies for medical purposes" and has never advocated for its recreational use.

"Don't come," he said during a CNN broadcast on Thursday. "We don't welcome you if you just come to this country for that purpose."

There are also extraterritorial laws that tourists from some nations, like Japan, must obey, or face harsh legal consequences back home.

"Japanese nationals residing abroad, including those in Thailand, may be subject to the same penalties [as in Japan] if they cultivate, import, export, possess or transfer marijuana," the Japanese embassy in Bangkok announced last year, warning its nationals to avoid using marijuana anywhere in the world.

Thais can now grow marijuana without a license, though those who do will have to register their plants via a government website or smartphone app.   © EPA/Jiji

Why did Thailand decriminalize marijuana?

The Thai government sees marijuana as a new industry. The market value of the marijuana-related business is said to be 40 billion baht ($1.15 billion), which is expected to grow to 70 billion baht by 2024, according to the Thai Industrial Hemp Trade Association. The Global Cannabis Report says the legal market is currently worth $100 billion globally.

There is also a political motive: The Bhumjaithai Party, part of the ruling coalition, in late 2018 came up with marijuana legalization as a campaign pledge ahead of a big election the following spring.

The party, which has its stronghold in Thailand's impoverished northeast, proposed a policy to delist marijuana as a narcotic and open cultivation to anyone looking to make some money. A lot of farmers bought into the dream of being able to grow a lucrative crop, and, four years later, they have the opportunity to chase it.

Does the government deal with any potential addiction issues?

The Prince Mother National Institute on Drug Abuse Treatment offers programs for some people who have become seriously addicted to drugs in six regions.

According to the institute, there are 1,170 patients who are seriously addicted to marijuana and need treatment at the institute now, excluding those who smoke habitually at home for pleasure.

Despite the Thai government stressing that only medical marijuana has been legalized, some experts say private and recreational consumption is inevitable, which might lead to addiction in some users.

Additional reporting by Kosuke Inoue in Bangkok.

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