Dr. Ganja is a bespectacled green cuddly teddy whose job is to educate Thailand about the benefits of medical marijuana.
The squishy toy is the latest illustration of the nation’s embrace of medical cannabis, an industry poised to expand to more than $660 million by 2024 from an estimate of $300,000 last year. The biggest cheerleader of the business opportunity may be a surprise: Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
Though Thailand last year became the first Southeast Asian nation to allow medical marijuana, the plant has not been decriminalized and tough penalties remain. Possession and trafficking could lead to long prison terms and big fines.
Amid that backdrop, the pro-marijuana former business tycoon Anutin wants to add cannabis plantations and processing facilities, as well as scale up local hospitals in Buriram, a northeastern farming province, to become champions of medical marijuana. This is a crop that some in the province — better known for rice cultivation — had until recently never seen, let alone sought to grow.
“People here have ganja fever,” said Thanaporn Pornsangakul, a scientist at Pela Plern Herbal Development Center, which is responsible for growing and supplying medical marijuana plants to Buriram’s only internationally accredited hospital. “There are so many who are interested in growing.”
The government this week opened the doors of its first medical marijuana clinic, offering free cannabis oil and care to patients with Parkinson’s disease, cancer and insomnia, among other ailments. In the first day, hundreds of patients visited the clinic, and more than 3,700 have shown interest through the clinic’s mobile application, according to a statement.
A cannabis plant mascot entertains patients during the opening of a cannabis (marijuana) clinic at the Department of Development of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine in Bangkok on January 6, 2020. (Photo by MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)
Community groups in Buriram have been asked to grow and cultivate medical-grade marijuana to be delivered to the state-owned Khu Muang Hospital as part of Anutin’s announced “Buriram Model.” The model is meant to serve as a prototype for cooperatives between farmers and medical institutions. He’s mulling the possibility of recreational legalization, which is in stark contrast to the government’s stance a year ago.
The Thai government had invested 100 million baht ($3.3 million) in the first indoor growing facility, which opened last year, as well as 12,000 cannabis plant seedlings, marijuana market researchers Prohibition Partners said. Its plan to prepare one million bottles of cannabis oil by February 2020 “shows ambition” on the part of the Thai government, the company added.
“Thailand has shown itself to be a leader of legislative reform among Asian nations, in relation to medical cannabis,” Prohibition Partners’ Head of Consultancy Barbara Pastori, said in an email. “This is likely to be the case with recreational cannabis also, particularly if there remains strong political will to do so.”
Anutin didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Before becoming Thailand’s deputy premier in the pro-military government coalition, Anutin campaigned on a pledge to legalize medical marijuana and allow household growing to boost incomes. Thai voters responded in a show of support, putting Anutin’s Bhum Jai Thai party into fifth place in Thailand’s March election.
The Ministry of Public Health, which Anutin also heads, is looking to speed up legal changes to liberalize the medical marijuana industry, including a move to allow household cultivation of as many as six cannabis plants. They are currently working with the Justice Ministry to decriminalize the plant.
Legalizing recreational use of marijuana is “the next step,” Anutin had said at an event in Bangkok in November. Yet the move is unlikely to happen in the four-year term of the current government, he said, citing the need for more research and study.
Thailand’s biggest hospital operator by market capitalization, Bangkok Dusit Medical Services Pcl, is skeptical about joining the green rush, opting to take a wait-and-see approach to the deputy prime minister’s plans for the industry.
“The situation of cannabis usage in Thailand now is uncertain — it changes nearly every day. The drive is rather political than academic,” BDMS’s Assistant Chief Medical Officer Group 1, Wisut Lajchasaewee, said in an emailed response. “The reliable studies or research for the benefit in medical use is rare. The most important thing is that we won’t use our patients as a guinea pig.”
Still, other medical officials see the potential for significant benefits, as legalization prompts people to open up about how they use cannabis to deal with their conditions.
“I was always taught that marijuana was a drug, but when it was legalized, I saw so many underground patients come out to say what bad shape they were in before and how much it has helped them,” Khu Muang Hospital’s Director Kitti Losuwanrak said in a phone interview. “The mindset is always evolving. When it was legalized, I asked: How can we put this plant into the hands of doctors?”
Rangsit University has launched a legal marijuana plantation and research institution, which the school claims is the country’s first. Another university in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai, Maejo University, has established an industrial-scale cannabis manufacturing facility in a cooperation pact with the state.