Today, the cannabis market in Asia is practically worthless. Tomorrow, not so. According to the Asian Cannabis Report, the forecast for a legal industry will likely swell to $5.8 billion by 2024. Which country will become the first to embrace this market and establish itself as a leading global supplier? This question remains unanswered at the time of writing, but surprisingly, Thailand may well be it.
Cannabis Reform in Thailand
Currently, the law in Thailand penalizes possession of cannabis. Although offenders face huge fines and a maximum 15-year prison sentence, medical marijuana is legal. The country was among the first in Asia to take this bold step, and now, with its potent strains, Thailand wants the honor of becoming the weed capital of Asia. To achieve this, it must legalize recreational use, preferably before anyone else does.
Its neighbors are hot on its heels. Countries on all its borders are quickly legalizing medical pot too. They could potentially stake their claim on the market too. Despite this competitive pressure, the country will likely be first to the post. Last year, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, then leader of Thailand’s junta and now first citizen after a disputed March election, gave the approval to legalize medical weed.
A primary member of his administration is now calling for Thailand to legalize its marijuana market in full, an industry projected to reach $661 million within the next five years, according to an industry researcher at Prohibition Partners, the firm that compiled the Asian Cannabis Report. Anutin Charnvirakul, leader of the Bhum Jai Thai party, intends to achieve full legalization.
Charnvirakul helped Prayuth to form a ruling coalition. Now, folks expect him to leverage that platform to deliver promises to legalize weed made during his campaign. On July 10, when the newly formed cabinet named him deputy prime minister and public health minister, the prospect of legalization actually occurring increased significantly.
In a party statement made on June 21, Charnvirakul said he wants to remove all restrictions that make it difficult for people to access marijuana easily. Even those approved to use it medicinally struggle. His two main positions make is much easier for him to propose a regulatory framework that would legalize the herb. However, even if it goes ahead, Thailand’s strict anti-trafficking laws are unlikely to change.
Other Nations Close Behind
Thailand is not the only Asian country considering cannabis reform. Laos and Malaysia are both rethinking medical use laws, and the lower legislature in the Philippines recently passed a measure for medical weed. Head of Insights at Prohibition Partners, Alexandra Curley, says, “For Thailand to become the Asian leader in the cannabis space, it would most likely mean that neither China nor Japan legalizes.”
Despite the fact that pot remains illegal in both of these countries, the two nations could well become the biggest markets in the Asian cannabis industry, with forecasts over the next five years at $4.4 billion for China and $2.1 billion for Japan. Chinas many consumers and Japan’s lofty weed prices, at $53 a gram, easily the world’s highest, explain the immense value of these two markets.
The proximity of Thailand to both countries, as well as its close trading ties, could attract patients looking for natural therapies or, if regional cannabis laws change, export its medical buds to other countries. Australia and South Korea both permit the import and export of medical weed already, and soon, other countries will too, as legalization continues to gain momentum.
Brian Armstrong, chief executive officer of Vinzan International, an agricultural trading company based in Canada that buys crops from growers in low-cost markets to process them for export, says, “The Asian market will challenge and perhaps even surpass the North American markets in the 5 to 10 years.” Currently, Vinzan is getting ready to operate out of Laos, with plans for expansion into Thailand.
After critics raised fears of foreigners coming in to monopolize the industry, the Thai government has been limiting operating licenses for investors from overseas. “We want to be a leader in marijuana,” says Sopon Mekthon, president of the Government Pharmaceutical Organization. “Our brand is strong, and we have traditional Thai medicine knowledge that is over 300-years old.” </p
A key figure of the coalition government in Thailand is taking decisive steps toward his goal of legalizing recreational marijuana in the country, giving the nation the opportunity to become the first to do so in Asia. If successful, Thailand will establish itself as a leader in the Asian cannabis industry, perhaps even the world if it can produce enough to export out of the continent and into Western markets.