Cannabis Around the World
Thailand, Canada, Israel and Costa Rica move the weed conversation forward.
The cannabis industry is globalizing fast, which means changes for mainstays of commercial production in Europe and North America, and new players coming online from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America. Here’s a roll call of a few entries from these increasingly cannafriendly international destinations.
Thailand is aggressively trying to position itself as the clear leader in Asia’s still emerging cannabis industry. The country’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, announced in May 2022—a month before a regulatory change took effect allowing residents to grow marijuana at home—that the Thai government will be giving away a million cannabis plants to households nationwide. The new and groundbreaking change allows Thai residents to grow cannabis without government permission—ostensibly to produce extract for medical use, which must be within a 0.2% THC limit. Anything above that is considered a “narcotic,” and requires special permission. Large-scale businesses will also still need to be granted a permit to legally operate.
As for actually smoking harvested bud—penalties for public use remain in place. But in the privacy of one’s home, cannabis is (at least) now de facto legal in Thailand.
Analysts were quick to point out that Thailand’s moves were made in hopes of attracting the exploding cannatourism sector to the Asian nation.
The process began this January, when the country’s Food and Drug Administration “delisted” the cannabis plant as a “Category 5” narcotic substance, in response to a draft proposal from the progressive Charnvirakul. This took effect on June 9—120 days after the change was officially published in the government’s Royal Gazette. But getting to the point of the Thai government handing out free weed to its citizens seemed unimaginable only a short time ago.
Thailand adopted a medical marijuana program in 2018 and approved commercial cultivation in 2020. But production is still harshly limited and rigidly controlled. The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) is cultivating cannabis and making tincture, which, in turn, is supplied to hospitals and clinics. Private production licenses are just now coming online, but cultivators must sell only to the GPO or hospitals. Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital in Prachinburi province is one such hospital with its own cultivation and extraction operations.
There’s also a separate set of regulations for what’s called “traditional medicine” and “applied medicine.” The former is for use in the country’s indigenous herblore, and the latter a Western-style medical marijuana program. In “traditional medicine,” cannabis extract can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments (insomnia, migraines, etc.), but only with a solution of three percent THC, infused in coconut oil. For “applied medicine,” more potent oil or tincture may be used, but only for a very limited number of serious conditions, such as epilepsy and the effects of chemotherapy.
Chokwan Kitty Chopaka is founder and CEO of the Bangkok-based networking and advocacy group Elevated Estate, which held an international expo in November 2019, eagerly hyping what it called Asia’s impending “green rush.” Three years later, she admits that such hopes have leveled off. The medical program was crafted “with the stigma in mind,” she said. “They’re scared of people being able to enjoy themselves or heal themselves. There are prohibitive license fees. The big companies will be able to pay, but the little guys won’t.”
And despite some 300 cannabis clinics operating nationwide, there’s not nearly enough supply to meet demand. “The clinics are only open a few hours a week, and most patients are still going to the illegal black market.” This may change following the FDA “delisting.”
However, Chopaka does see that cultural momentum for a freer atmosphere is mounting. “On the underground front, we’re getting really good at growing,” she says. “It was quite difficult to find growers in Thailand five years ago, but now we’re really producing good quality weed.” And with the FDA regulatory change, cannabis is now “legal as garlic.”
So, progress may be slower than what was anticipated after the medical program was first unveiled in 2018, but Chopaka says, “They can’t go backwards; they’ve already opened the door.”
Meanwhile, she’s producing terpene-infused gummies under her own Chopaka brand, with a dedicated retail shop in Bangkok. Chopaka developed the patented terpene profile, which is produced by a factory under contract, and added to the gummies at her own factory. No actual cannabis is involved, but mimicking the flavor, she hopes, will contribute to the cultural shift and help “de-stigmatize the use of cannabis.”
The traditional leader in the global industry and the crucible of Big Bud is facing something of a reckoning. Canadian firms pioneered the use of sprawling greenhouses, applying economy-of-scale strategies to cannabis. But now a market correction is causing a roll-back of Big Bud’s ambitions—which may be a boon to more eco-friendly boutique cannabis. New micro-cultivation licenses for small growers recently came available through Health Canada.
Justin Cooper is co-founder and CEO of British Columbia-based GreenPlanet Wholesale, which supplies equipment and its own line of fertilizers to Canada’s leading licensed cannabis producers.
Noting that industry leader Canopy Growth recently shut down its two greenhouse complexes in BC, Cooper observes: “Companies came in to own the cannabis space, and they aren’t doing so good. This leaves room for the craft cultivators to find a niche. The market is flooded. LPs are sitting on vaults of cannabis they can’t sell. When people see a potential gold rush, they flock to it. But now that craft licenses are available, the market is maturing.”
Cooper continued, saying that growers who transitioned from the black to legal market are now finding success as they cement their rightful place in this industry.
“People who were born into growing cannabis in the Kootenays and are collecting their first paychecks now, after living in a cash economy all their lives, [are] either owning production or finally getting gainful employment in the legal space,” he said.
However, Cooper says official policy is in some ways holding back this sector.
“The government grades solely on the basis of THC content,” he said. “The provincial government won’t buy if it’s under 21 percent, and all cannabis on the legal market has to go through the BC Liquor Control Board.”
In contrast, aficionados have traditionally judged high-quality cannabis by aroma, color, bud structure and trichomes—not just potency.
Cooper sees a remedy in proposals for a “Farmgate” program in which local growers could directly market their product—one has already been launched in Ontario. “It’d be like a farmers’ market or craft beer brewery where customers could come and drink beer that’s made on site,” he said. “The Liquor Control Board would still tax and have regulatory control but would not do direct sales.”
As the marketplace opens up to small growers in Canada, Cooper emphasizes how important it is for them to find areas that define them as a cultivator. “What makes you different from your competition? The best way to complete is not to compete,” he says.
With a growing market niche for organic, Cooper hopes to see more outdoor-grown product coming online—despite the short growing season in BC. “Indoor is a by-product of prohibition, and the carbon footprint associated with making a pound of indoor cannabis is atrocious,” he says. “We have to be better stewards of the plant and the planet.”
Israel has had a thriving medical marijuana program; the government also added a legal commercial cultivation and export sector when the cabinet moved to permit medical in February 2019. An internal adult-use market may be on the distant horizon. New regulations being weighed by the cabinet would decriminalize personal use, making permanent a provisional decriminalization measure passed by the Knesset in July 2018. Some see a unique role for the country in the global industry.
“Israel’s traditional leading edge is in cannabis research,” says Joshua Nachum Berman, director of the Tel Aviv-based networking platform CannaTech.
From 2015 to the pandemic shutdown in 2020, CannaTech held an annual conference, bringing together investors, entrepreneurs and scientists “to explore the latest developments in the cannabis space,” in Berman’s words. CannaTech held expos in Panama and Cape Town as well as Israel and held events alongside the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“Israel has done well in agrotech and biotech, and cannabis sits at the crossroads of those,” he says. “There’s been ongoing cannabis research since the 1960s; we’re a leader in research and development. It’s written into the DNA of how things operate here.”
Berman runs down a litany of areas where he sees Israel’s potential as a world leader. “We’re exploring genomics on the agricultural side and developments on the medical side with new cannabinoids and novel delivery systems, such as vaporization and other cleaner alternatives to combustion. We haven’t approached the full potential of what you can do with this plant.”
Costa Rica legalized medical marijuana and hemp cultivation by an act of the Legislative Assembly on March 2, 2022, becoming the second country on the Central American isthmus to do so after Panama, which took the move in August 2021.
President Carlos Alvarado signed the law after two years of debate. In January, he’d vetoed a more far-reaching measure that also would’ve allowed personal use and home cultivation. The new law doesn’t. Despite this limitation, the Assembly member who shepherded through the law has high hopes for emergence of a new agricultural sector for Costa Rica. Zoila Rosa Volio tells Cannabis Now that the law will “mark a before-and-after in our history, if appropriate regulation is implemented.”
This, however, isn’t a given. The center-left President Alvarado is on the way out. In an April 3 run-off election, the right-wing Rodrigo Chaves, a former finance minister, edged out centrist former president José Maria Figueres. It remains to be seen to what degree Chaves will attempt to roll back the cannabis reform, which occasioned much opposition from cultural conservatives.