Despite its stigma in much of Southeast Asia, a new law in Thailand allowing for the research and development of medical cannabis is blazing a path for the crop's production and opening new economic opportunities.
Thailand made headlines all over the world last December when it became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize cannabis for medical use and research purposes, sparking a race to cash in on what could someday become the country's main cash crop.
Full legalization was a core policy of the Bhumjaithai party's campaign in the March 24 election, which helped it win the fifth most seats in Thailand's new parliament.
The government has also made the development of the industrial potential of the drug one of its priorities, saying its study and development "should be sped up for the medical industry to create economic opportunity and income for the people."
A so-called "green rush" has followed and the first batch of medical cannabis oil was delivered and distributed to hospitals early August. Several companies have applied for research permits and patents as they look to gain a foothold in a new and potentially lucrative market.
The economic opportunities of medical marijuana was one of the many factors behind the new legislation
Interest has not been limited to the private sector. The government has built an industrial-scale medical marijuana facility housing 12,000 plants, the largest in Southeast Asia. These will be used in the production of over one million bottles of cannabis oil by February 2020.
"Marijuana is Thailand's future cash crop," said Sontirat Sontijirawonghas, the secretary-general of the ruling party Phalang Pracharat and a former commerce minister.
Until the change in law, the drug's prohibition — even for scientific purposes — meant that the supplies needed for research into the medical benefits of cannabis were limited. In an unusual turn, the government sought to make up for the initial shortfall of available research materials by turning to the only readily available stocks: cannabis seized from criminals by police.
A longer-term solution has been to remove low-level cannabis and hemp extracts from the banned narcotics list in September in a bid to promote the development of medical marijuana domestically.
Although only hospitals and research institutions are currently allowed to apply for permits to develop medical cannabis extracts, the crop has multibillion-dollar potential if private companies are permitted to enter the fray.
The Asian medical marijuana market will be worth an estimated $5.8 billion (€5.2 billion) by 2024, according to Prohibition Partners, a cannabis research firm.
Bhumjaithai is also pushing a draft bill which would allow households to grow six cannabis plants for personal consumption for medical use. The party stresses that the policy would not allow for recreational use. The bill is expected to be passed next year after the Thai Parliament resumes its ordinary session in November.
"The policy can help the government regarding production and drug accessibility," Kitty Chopaka, founder of Elevated Estate and a leader from the Bangkok-based cannabis advocacy group Highland Network, told DW.
But she warned that "without proper regulations and procedures in place, especially with the current law restricting use to medical and only with permission (prescription), the government will have a hard time keeping things under control in a way that the public would consider acceptable."
Rosana Tositrakul, Thai Holistic Health Foundation's secretary-general and a former Bangkok senator, focused more on the law's benefits, namely increasing people's opportunities and economic independence.
"The public would then be able to rely on themselves. It would also help reduce the monopolistic nature of the industry," she said.
Although there has been rapid progress in the legality of marijuana's medical potential, full legalization for recreational purposes is a hurdle that is unlikely to be overcome in the short term.
Even though the drug has been used in the country as a traditional medicine for centuries, its use is far from widespread and a social stigma regarding its recreational use remains.
Leading government officials are reluctant to advocate permitting the recreational use of cannabis despite the crop's obvious economic potential. Others outright dismiss the possibility of legalization.
Even Anuthin Charnvirakul, public health minister and Bhumjaithai party leader, has since backpedaled on his party's signature campaign proposal, claiming that the legalization of cannabis for recreational use was never mentioned on the campaign trail.
Rosana told DW that legalizing recreational marijuana use is "unlikely."
"In the past 40 years, Thai society has been turned against marijuana. Recreational cannabis use will definitely not be acceptable in the near future in Thailand," she said.
Recreational users of marijuana in the Southeast Asian country still face severe penalties for possession, including up to 10 years in prison.
But some campaigners are optimistic, arguing that recent developments show changing attitudes, and hope that the movement will continue to gain momentum toward legalization.
"I think Thailand will legalize cannabis for recreational use within five to eight years. It is something I believe is inevitable, especially with more countries around the world legalizing recreational cannabis use for adults," said cannabis advocate Chopaka.
While full legalization remains a remote possibility, the prospect of cashing in on medical cannabis tourism is more realistic. Pipat Ratchakitprakan, Thailand's tourism and sports minister, appears optimistic about its economic benefits.
"We would like to provide medical tour packages such as detox, Thai massage and other wellness courses that use marijuana substances," said Pipat on his first day in office back in July, according to the Bangkok Post. A ministry spokesman declined to comment when contacted by DW.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia
Although cannabis remains taboo, other countries in the region could soon follow in Thailand's footsteps and soften their attitudes toward marijuana, despite the prevalence of tough anti-drug laws.
Malaysia now plans to decriminalize low-level possession of illicit drugs. Many in the country are also pushing the government to become the second nation in Southeast Asia to allow the medical use of the crop.
In the Philippines, where a bloody crackdown on illegal drugs has grabbed headlines in recent years, a bill to legalize medical cannabis was approved in the House of Representatives.
Even in Singapore, with its government's zero-tolerance policy against drugs, research into cannabis for medical purposes has kicked off.
For the time being though, Thailand is blazing its own trail by embracing the opportunities presented by the crop's monetary potential. Cannabis-hype has even led the country to host the World Ganja Festival 2020, which will be held from January 29 to February 2.