The government wants to foster a legal industry, but prices are keener in the illegal one
Thailand became the first country in South-East Asia to approve the use of medical marijuana last year, and the first facility growing it opened in Pathum Thani province, north of the capital, Bangkok, in February. The Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (gpo), a state enterprise, has burned 100m baht ($3.1m) on the place. The indoor farm covers 100 square metres and its aeroponic system bathes plants in pinkish light for up to 20 hours a day. Advanced scanners and other gadgets prevent thieves from grabbing them. The first batch of 2,500 bottles of sublingual allergy drops—each containing 5ml of the product—should appear in July.
The plantation is part of an attempt by the military government to create a national industry around medicinal marijuana. Under the new law, only official agencies and their partners can grow it. But the five-star, high-tech facility has caused some amusement and irritation in a country in which weed is available for as little as 10 baht ($0.30) a gram on the streets. (The same quantity would cost $10 in America.) Critics on social media have come out swinging. “Such overkill, all for show. Anyone could outgrow these non-smokers with just $20,000,” wrote one disgruntled Facebook user.
No doubt the quality of the cosseted official product is higher than what is on offer on the streets; and tight regulations around cultivation have pushed up costs. The authorities have to keep the precious plants closely guarded because recreational use of marijuana remains illegal. Possession of 10kg or less can result in a jail sentence of up to five years. Certain kinds of drug-trafficking can incur the death penalty (though Thailand rarely carries out executions).
Many Thais take a dim view of illegal narcotics. Those in poorer parts of the country, where communities have been ravaged by meth from Myanmar, fondly remember the anti-drugs campaign of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister. Much like Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, he encouraged vigilantes to take action against suspected drug dealers. In three months in 2003 more than 2,500 people died in a spate of extra-judicial killings.
A smaller group of people hopes that the government’s green light for medical marijuana might eventually lead to the legalisation of the drug for recreational use. The Bhumjaithai Party, which did well in elections in March and is likely to be part of any government formed after the results are certified in May, supports further loosening of the law on marijuana. It thinks farmers could make good cash from hash. But advocates for legalisation doubt any such relaxation of the law will occur soon. The military junta, theoretically on the verge of surrendering power, in practice seems determined to retain it. The rebirth of Thai democracy has already gone to pot.