Southeast Asia’s biggest changes toward cannabis liberalization continue to unfold in Thailand. Some speculate boom times are ahead for Thailand tourism with medical cannabis now legal. But don't expect ailing patients to flock there for cannabis treatments anytime soon.
When Thailand’s first official full-time clinic specializing in traditional and alternative cannabis-based medicine opened in January, hopes were high that the greater access to legal medical cannabis could open doors for the country’s tourism sector to reap the economic benefits of marijuana-inspired travel into Southeast Asia.
In a region where cannabis use continues to be a controversial subject approached with caution, liberalization can be said to be happening with some ferocity in Thailand.
The Thai government in December 2018 approved cannabis for medical use and research, and it has since launched cultivation projects in select laboratories and crops. Thailand more recently announced it will open up the production, import and export, and use of hemp to the private sector.
Moreover, foreign visitors who have existing prescriptions could soon be allowed to bring in 90 days’ worth of their own medical cannabis. To be finalized by February 2021, the proposed new regulation is under review and lawmakers are mulling how patients can declare medical cannabis at immigration, according to Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, founder and CEO of cannabis consultancy Elevated Estate.
New Cash Crop born
While there is apparent political will to promote medical cannabis tourism, the relaxed rules might for now have little to do with international visitors seeking medical-grade cannabis in Thailand.
The government is encouraging Thai growers to supply cannabis to hospitals to help with ailments such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and insomnia.
But leading hospitals in the medical tourism market are yet to capitalize on this, as medical-grade cannabis is only being made available to state-owned hospitals, according to Chopaka.
Besides, cannabis medicine is still not a moneymaker for those dispensing it legally. Chopaka told Skift: “The only legal cannabis here is cannabis that is free. That’s the only way the government can legally dispense cannabis. Patients are still ‘lab rats’ in a research access scheme, and because of this cannot be made to pay for the cannabis. There are however illegal clinics that [sell] cannabis medicine. It’s been happening for a while now.”
Even given more time, foreigner-frequented hospitals might still have limited access to medical cannabis. “If [supply] opens up to medical tourists and the largest private hospitals, the concern is how the Thai public is going to benefit,” Chopaka expressed.
Boost for wellness tourism
In light of Thailand’s broader liberalization of hemp, the most immediate business opportunities within tourism will lie in the wellness segment. When in effect, the private sector will be able to grow, cultivate, and import hemp, as well as process and make products with the substance.
In the near future, Chopaka foresees there could be wellness centers offering cannabidiol (CBD) and hemp, while cosmetics and hemp food products could be hitting the shelves in wellness tourism establishments as soon as by this year-end.
This could be good news for international players in Thailand’s tourism industry. To import or use hemp under the new rules, companies have to be registered in Thailand, but are not required to be fully owned by Thais. They need to have an office here and have two-thirds of their shareholding or directors be Thai, Chopaka explained.
She surmised: “This is the buzz that the private sector can get involved in. I do see [Thailand’s private medical tourism hospitals like] Samitivej and Bumrungrad having their CBD clinics some time soon. It will not be THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis) or the whole plant, just baby steps.”
Still, hospitals remain cautious about the potentials. Skift reached out to the country’s largest network of private hospitals, Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (BDMS), which also runs wellness centers and resorts across Thailand, but did not get a response.
A medical doctor in one of BDMS’ hospitals, Bumrungrad International Hospital, who also helps run a BDMS wellness center in a tourist resort said: “We do not have cannabis in our hospital or wellness clinic. Cannabis is still under strict control by the Ministry of Public Health.”
Resorts raring to go
Whether it’s cannabis or CBD, resort operators have for some time been eagerly anticipating the opportunities that cannabis liberalization can bring.
“In North America and Europe, there are already resorts where organic food, cannabis, and other wellness components come together. I’m confident the same will happen in Thailand and become front-of-mind,” expressed Ingo Schweder, managing director of Horwath HTL Health & Wellness, and founder and CEO of Goco Hospitality.
Goco Hospitality’s resort in California already has CBD on the spa menu. In Thailand, however, “legislation needs to become more advanced” before the Bangkok-based wellness hospitality management company can take that step, he said.
“We have had conversations about this with officials from two ministries. It’s still very nascent. But I believe because Thailand is one of the biggest tourist hubs in the world — three, four years down the road, [cannabis or its derivatives] will become mainstream. Yes, there are legislative issues. In North America, this took four to six years to [sort out]. But look, now it’s a multibillion dollar business.”
Not Everyone’s Getting High
But the enthusiasm is not shared by everyone. Those interviewed agree the largest obstacles in the way are not production and supply, but attitudes and perceptions that lawmakers still hold toward cannabis.
“[Opposition in Thailand] is coming mainly from the people making the rules. They tend to have the most stigma against cannabis. They still fear that once cannabis is ‘let out’ to the public, people will become lazy and no longer be functioning members of society.
“Those in power are pro-cannabis because they think it’s good business. At the same time they don’t like the idea of a lot of people using it. There are very conflicting [considerations] going on.”
Schweder believed that the line separating medical and recreational use of the drug will eventually blur — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “The lines [between medical and recreational use] have blurred in the US and Europe and they can blur once this takes off in this part of the world … The problem is not recreational use of the drug. It is [using it to excess]. But the same applies to food, alcohol, and other things we already consume,” he remarked.
Meanwhile, some urge a more measured approach to the potential green rush. Jim Plamondon of the Thai Cannabis Corporation said: “Thailand has a few certified hemp strains, but they are the result of a research project that was focused on fiber, so all of the strains are low in CBD compared to many strains overseas. Therefore, a breeding project is required to boost the CBD content of locally adapted hemp strains, or to test overseas-sourced hemp strains for local suitability. That will take time.
“Thailand does not seem to be rushing to cash in on a boom. Instead, it seems to be looking beyond the boom to its eventual bust, and asking, ‘What do we need to do now to build a cannabis industry that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable after the bust?
“With which I wholeheartedly agree,” Plamondon said.
Photo credit: Thailand's legalization of cannabis for medicine purposes could launch marijuana tourism in Southeast Asia. contentdealer / Adobe