One thing is true about cannabis legalization no matter where it happens: Nobody gets it right the first time around—and there are always lots of critics. This has been true in every legalizing U.S. state. It is true of Canada. It will almost certainly be the case in Europe, although legislators here are cautious to back most forward moves on the legalization front into “trials.” This is also now being seen in Asia as Thailand becomes the first country in the region to legalize the plant and proceeds with crafting formal legislation to regulate the burgeoning domestic cannabis industry.
While Thailand may be internationally hailed as the first Asian country to embrace cannabis reform, however, the new policies are being harshly criticized in some quarters particularly domestically, and further with flawed logic seen elsewhere.
There are two key issues of contention. The first is that critics are lambasting the government decision to move ahead with cannabis reform at all—albeit of the medical kind. The second is that the government should have moved more slowly and studied the consequences of legalization, closing loopholes along the way.
One of the most public consequences of the country’s moves to legalize cannabis this year, beyond the global publicity Thailand received for giving away one million cannabis plants or releasing its cannabis prisoners, is to launch a public relations campaign warning tourists that cannabis is not broadly legal in the country.
And this is all before the formal bill to legalize medical use has formally passed into law.
Buyer’s Remorse in Thailand?
Thailand may be proceeding with reform a little differently than Western countries to date, but the arguments against reform seem to be remarkably similar, no matter the geography in which they happen.
The first, inevitably, comes from the established medical profession. Despite the government’s assurances that they are implementing medical not recreational use reforms, Thai doctors have raised concerns familiar elsewhere. Namely that cannabis supposedly can “trigger” mental health issues. This is particularly ironic given the history of the plant here. Historically, cannabis has been used in Thailand, as in other countries, for both medical and religious purposes.
The second wave of criticism is coming from critics who are concerned that the change in the law will hurt the reputation of Thai agricultural exports. Namely whether such biomass will be used in animal feed. There is also considerable irony in this attack, including the existence of a recent Thai study which appears to indicate that chickens fed hemp with up to 0.4% THC appear to need fewer if not any antibiotics as they are raised for meat.
A Global Stigma Remains
No matter how far cannabis reform has come in the last decade, it is situations like the one now unfolding in Thailand which are stark reminders of how far the legalization effort still has to go.
The positive news is that Thailand’s sudden change of heart towards cannabis is already prompting other countries in the region (such as Indonesia) to re-examine their own approach to cannabis.
Thailand’s green conversion, in other words, is particularly disruptive in a region that so far has resisted modern cannabis reform, and further still has some of the harshest anti-cannabis laws on the books anywhere in the world. In many parts of Asia, one can still receive a life sentence if not the death penalty for “crimes” that are considered relatively minor cannabis infractions elsewhere.
The largest hemp producer in the world, China, is of course watching all of said developments closely. At the U.N., the country still lobbies against removing cannabis from a Schedule I drug. At home, even unapproved possession of hemp seeds is considered a serious crime.
Regardless, the remarkable progress in Thailand, as well as the unconventional approach to implementing reform seen here, is just another welcome sign that, no matter the critics, the great cannabis revolution rolls on, unabated, even in this part of the world.
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