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Thailand becomes the first Asian country to decriminalize marijuana—but there’s one big catch

June 9, 2022, 8:02 PM UTC

Thailand is getting creative with how to restart its economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2020, the country’s GDP fell by 6%, largely due to COVID-era restrictions impacting jobs and businesses in the tourism sector. Prior to the pandemic, tourism accounted for one fifth of the country’s GDP and 20% of employment.

But despite lifting most coronavirus restrictions, the tourism sector is still struggling to recover in 2022, and the country is turning to another means to kickstart its economy.

On Thursday, Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalize the use of marijuana and hemp. The country’s Public Health Ministry had agreed in January to remove the two plants from its illicit narcotics category, ruling that cultivation and commerce would be legalized in June. The ruling came four years after becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize the drug for medical use.

Shoppers formed a line in front of Bangkok cannabis product vendors on Thursday in anticipation of the law change. One man said he had been waiting in line since he got off from work Wednesday evening, Reuters reported.

Possession and distribution of cannabis is now legal through recognized vendors, who can now sell any of the 10 strains of cannabis plants grown in Thailand. People can now grow the plant in their homes and consume it for medical purposes, according to the Bangkok Post.

Legalizing the commercial sale and personal cultivation of cannabis products is the latest step in the Thai government’s plan to monetize the plant as a lucrative cash crop. Agriculture still employs nearly a third of Thailand’s workforce, and the country is looking to develop a domestic cannabis industry, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said during statements on Thursday.

“We expect the value of [the cannabis] industry to easily exceed $2 billion,” he said, highlighting Thailand’s ideal climate to grow the plant, and the incentives that had already been provided to farmers, and plans to develop a larger export industry around the crop.

“I think Thai people are excited and eager to be players—either as investors or product-makers as well as consumers. With today’s technology and marketing strategies, Thailand will be second to none in being able to promote [cannabis] products in the global market.”

But the new law comes with one major caveat: you can’t smoke cannabis, or not in public at least. 

The Thai government has warned potential consumers that smoking in public could still be considered a nuisance, and it will subject users to a 25,000 baht ($780) fine and a jail sentence of up to three months, the AP reported. Cannabis products with particularly potent concentrations of THC, marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient, also remain illegal.

Also on Thursday, the Thai government announced the release of over 3,000 inmates who had been detained under cannabis-related charges. 

The law change appears to have been long in the making, and could be the first step in a national attempt to tap into the extremely lucrative domestic cannabis market. 

The Narcotics Control Board approved decriminalizing the drug in January, and in May, Charnvirakul announced that once the law was changed the government would give away one million free cannabis plants to households. These deliveries are expected to start on Friday. 

On Thursday, more than 100,000 people registered to cultivate cannabis in their homes, temporarily overwhelming the capacity of the government-sponsored registration app.

The global cannabis industry is currently worth nearly $26 billion, according to a 2021 industry forecast, but is poised for explosive growth over the next decade. The same report estimates that the industry will be worth nearly $1.8 trillion by 2030.

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