Things have moved slowly in authoritarian Thailand since
It may elicit chuckles from stateside readers, but Rangsit University, just outside Bangkok, isn’t playing its new department for laughs. Ganja is the word for cannabis in the Thai language — a loan word from Sanskrit. The new undergraduate program, overseen by the school’s Agricultural Innovation Facility, will include classes in the history of the cannabis plant, its medicinal applications and training in cultivation, all under terms of the medical marijuana law that Thailand passed last year.
The agricultural facility dean, Banyat Saitthiti, told the Thai Public Broadcasting Service: “The world has advanced greatly in marijuana research, especially medical marijuana. But in Thailand, we don’t have skilled workers that know much about cannabis… We will be the pioneers of marijuana education programs in Thailand.”
“Once we have knowledge about marijuana, we can develop our own strains, and in the future we’ll have marijuana farms,” he added. “I believe that’s where we’re headed.”
Working with Police-Confiscated Cannabis
Last week, Public Radio International was given a guided tour of the new cannabis facility, where researchers are already working to develop new products and preparing to begin cultivation. And according to Thanapat Songsak, dean of the university’s College of Pharmacy, they are actually using seed from stuff confiscated by police to do so, which means they don’t even know what strains they are working with.
Importing cannabis into Thailand remains illegal, even for research or medical purposes. But earlier this year, the scientists at Rangsit were given some 40 kilo-sized bricks of compacted cannabis that had been seized from illicit-market traffickers. Much of it was found to be tainted with pesticide residue and other contaminants, but there was enough usable stock to create a small batch of quality THC oils.
Several new prototype products have already been developed at the facility, some based on traditional culinary and medicinal use of cannabis in Thailand. One is a flavorful powder that can be used in cooking with coconut oil. It blends cannabis with such signature Thai ingredients as sandalwood, ginger and various types of hot pepper.
Thailand remains in a “transition period,” according to Supachai Kunaratnpruk, a former official with the country’s health ministry who is now helping to oversee the Rangsit cannabis facility. Cultivation is taking place in only a few government-approved greenhouses. Doctors at some state-run hospitals have been approved to dispense THC oils to a handful of select patients.
Some 8,500 individual users have also registered with the Thai Food & Drug Administration, which oversees the program, according to Coconuts Bangkok. Cultivation and possession of herbaceous cannabis by patients is permitted under the program, but neither importation or commercialization have yet been approved despite language in the December legislation.
Supachai told Public Radio International that many government officials remain skeptical of ambitions for a cannabis economy. These include cultural conservatives who fear that medical marijuana will be a first step toward a general legalization — but also more progressive-minded leaders, who fear that the country’s cannabis industry could come under monopolistic control by one or two corporations, focused more on profits than health — Thailand’s rich genetic stock in cannabis strains (including ancient sativa landraces) could come under private, possibly foreign ownership.
“We can’t let it fall into one [set of] hands, one big company,” Supachai said. “Our responsibility is to develop special Thai strains of world-class cannabis used in medicine. We want to cooperate with farmer co-ops. They grow it, we provide knowledge and it’s all sold to the medical profession. That’s the model.”
Others are displaying more enthusiasm than caution.
Last year, Coconuts TV produced a documentary series — now available on Netflix — entitled “Highland: Thailand’s Marijuana Awakening,” exploring plans for a cannabis economy and giving voice to those who are indeed calling for full legalization. Coconuts TV spoke to doctors, patients whose lives have been improved from CBD oil and activists with the Highland Network, a legalization advocacy group.
As Public Radio International notes, even some members of Thailand’s traditional conservative political class are now speaking hopefully of producing “world-class cannabis” in the country’s lush farmlands, and stealing the lead before other Asian nations build their own cannabis industries.
South Korea has taken modest steps toward a medical marijuana market, and the Philippines may be following suit, despite recent reversals. And in a strange paradox, the People’s Republic of China, with some of the world’s harshest cannabis laws, has quietly opened the way for research into the plant’s medical applications.
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