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Green Rush: Thai Government Pledges to Give Away One Million Free Cannabis Plants

By Connor YearsleyAnutin Charnvirakul

In a Facebook post in early May 2022, Thailand’s Public Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, announced the Thai government would distribute one million free cannabis (Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae) plants beginning in early June 2022, when many legal restrictions on cannabis production and possession were set to be lifted in the country.1-5

The announcement said the free plants would have a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, cannabis’ main psychoactive compound) level below 0.2% and would be given to households for medical purposes only. Charnvirakul, a construction tycoon who reportedly has spearheaded Thailand’s effort to decriminalize cannabis, also said people can now grow as many cannabis plants as they want at home.2,3,5

The first 1,000 free plants were given away in northeastern Buriram province in June. “Don’t use it and sit smiling at home and not get any work done,” Charnvirakul was quoted as saying at the launch of the giveaway.4

It is not clear how people were selected to receive the free plants (first-come, first-serve or some other system), how much the plants cost the government, how/if the government planned to measure the success of the initiative, or if the government provided any guidance about how people should properly care for the plants. However, according to some sources, cannabis is relatively easy to cultivate. Further details about the free plants, including their maturity, also are not known. At the time of this writing (August 2022), it is also unclear how many of the 1 million plants have been given away and how they were distributed geographically.

Thailand’s decriminalization of cannabis is notable in a region that is known for its longstanding strict cannabis laws. In nearby Singapore, for example, possessing cannabis can lead to prison time of 10 years, and trafficking cannabis is punishable by death.1

Map of Southeast AsiaThe Thai government’s cannabis initiative has a political aspect. Since a military coup in Thailand in 2014 (at least the 12th coup since the country’s first coup in 19326), the government has been becoming more progressive in relation to cannabis and LGBTQ rights, although the reasons vary. In 2018, the junta-appointed parliament approved medical use of cannabis, which some believed might help military-backed parties win support in the parliamentary elections the next year. The approval took effect in early 2019 and made Thailand the first Southeast Asian country to legalize cannabis for medical use and study.7 Several restrictions have been eased gradually since then.5

According to The Washington Post, a push for broader legalization in Thailand came later in 2019, after the first election since the coup. Charnvirakul’s Bhumjaithai Party had promoted cannabis as a cash crop and promised to legalize household cultivation.7 During his campaign in 2019, he was quoted as saying that small-scale cannabis farming could bring households an extra $13,000 per year.1 Charnvirakul became health minister that year, when his party came in fifth and joined the coalition government (i.e., a usually-temporary alliance that is formed when no party gains a clear majority and competing parties instead choose to cooperate).7

In January 2022, Thailand announced that it would remove cannabis from its list of controlled drugs and decriminalize cannabis with a THC level below 0.2% for personal use, reportedly becoming the first Asian country to do so. At the time, it was reported that the rule had to be published in the official Royal Gazette and would go into effect 120 days after that. The rule apparently went into effect in early June, coinciding with the plant giveaway.2,8

Now, people in Thailand do not need government permission before starting to grow cannabis at home. However, cultivators reportedly still need to secure additional licenses to grow cannabis for what are considered non-medical purposes, such as for cannabidiol (CBD, a non-intoxicating compound in cannabis) or hemp businesses (even though CBD has been shown to have many potential medicinal applications and benefits). The government will perform regular inspections to prevent unauthorized operations from sprouting up.3

Large cannabis businesses need to register via a mobile application developed and operated by the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA).2,3 By April 2022, the Thai FDA reportedly had received about 4,700 applications for licenses to import, possess, grow, and produce cannabis and hemp.5Cannabis plant

Households can form communities or co-ops to grow cannabis for public and state facilities, such as hospitals, or for food and cosmetic products. Recreational use of cannabis with a THC content above 0.2% and smoking cannabis in public reportedly are still forbidden, and individuals can face up to 15 years in prison.2-4 However, when the laws changed in June, about 3,000 people reportedly were released from prison after being held for cannabis-related crimes.4

In Thailand, the agriculture sector employs around 30% of the total labor force, and the government now apparently wants to make cannabis one of its top cash crops. The country also reportedly wants to develop a wellness industry around cannabis, position itself as the medical hub of Asia and a leader in Asia’s nascent cannabis industry, and strengthen medical tourism. Tourism made up as much as one fifth of Thailand’s pre-COVID-19 economy, and tourists have just started returning in large numbers after having been largely absent during the pandemic.1-3,5

“This will enable people and the government to generate more than 10 billion baht [per year, or $272.4 million USD] in revenue from marijuana and hemp,” Charnvirakul was quoted as saying. “Meanwhile, people can showcase their cannabis and hemp-related products and wisdom and sell their products nationwide.”3

Image credits (top to bottom):

Anutin Charnvirakul in 2019. Image courtesy of NBT News
A map of Southeast Asia, including Thailand (in red)
Cannabis sativa. ©2022 Steven Foster Group

References

  1. Ives M, Suhartono M. Thailand Will Give Away 1 Million Weed Plants. The New York Times. May 12, 2022. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2022/05/12/world/asia/thailand-legal-weed-plant.html. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  2. Sabaghi D. Thailand to Give Away One Million Cannabis Plants to Households Across the Country. Forbes May 23, 2022. Available at: www.forbes.com/sites/dariosabaghi/2022/05/23/thailand-to-give-away-one-million-cannabis-plants-to-households-across-the-country/. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  3. Stovall C. Thailand is giving away 1 million cannabis plants to celebrate new homegrow laws. Leafly website. May 11, 2022. Available at: www.leafly.com/news/politics/thailand-giving-away-1-million-cannabis-plants. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  4. Thailand launches its campaign to give away one million free cannabis plants, but discourages getting high. ABC News (Australia) website. June 10, 2022. Available at: www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-10/thailand-to-give-one-million-free-cannabis-plants/101144672. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  5. Farberov S. Thai High: Thailand to give away 1 million free marijuana plants. New York Post. May 11, 2022. Available at: www.nypost.com/2022/05/11/thailand-to-give-away-1-million-free-marijuana-plants/. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  6. Taylor A, Kaphle A. Thailand’s army just announced a coup. Here are 11 other Thai coups since 1932. The Washington Post. May 22, 2014. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/05/20/thailands-army-says-this-definitely-isnt-a-coup-heres-11-times-it-definitely-was/. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  7. Tanakasempipat P. How Thailand Is Blazing Trails on Gay Rights, Legalizing Marijuana. The Washington Post. July 21, 2022. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/business/how-thailand-is-blazing-trails-on-gay-rights-legalizing-marijuana/2022/07/19/0e60409c-07c8-11ed-80b6-43f2bfcc6662_story.html. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  8. Sabaghi D. Thailand Has Become the First Asian Country to Decriminalize Recreational Cannabis. Forbes January 27, 2022. Available at: www.forbes.com/sites/dariosabaghi/2022/01/27/thailand-has-become-the-first-asian-country-to-decriminalize-recreational-cannabis/. Accessed July 26, 2022.
References