In December 2018, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian nation to allow medical cannabis for its citizens. The decision made worldwide headlines that painted the government as progressive and forward-thinking. “This is a New Year’s Gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” said Somchai Swangkarn at the time, the lawmaker who headed the drafting committee.
Now closing in on the end of 2020, there is seemingly a disconnect between Thailand changing its laws to allow medical cannabis and its citizens actually having access to it.
In the media, Thailand’s medical cannabis program continues to expand, but Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, Founder of Thailand’s leading cannabis expo Elevated Estate, sees a different story from within Thailand. Green Flower caught up with Chopaka to get her thoughts on the reality of medical cannabis in Thailand.
Green Flower: What would you say your position is in the burgeoning Thai cannabis industry?
Chokwan Kitty Chopaka: I am the CEO and Founder of Elevated Estate. We are here to build the ecosystem for cannabis businesses and help build the industry itself.
It is still very early days for the cannabis industry here in Thailand and a lot of information is still very difficult to come by.
GF: So you’re essentially a facilitator to help get the cannabis industry going there.
CKC: Pretty much. I like to play the supporting role. Elevated Estate does a yearly B2B cannabis expo and we also release cannabis reports for Thailand. [It] gives people a general overview of what the market is, how Thai people react to the actual cannabis itself, who are the players, as well as where we are all heading.
GF: The government of Thailand has essentially painted a picture that cannabis is being rolled out and everything is going well. Do you agree? What is the reality on the ground?
CKC: The painted picture [from the government] is that cannabis is readily accessible, it is now legal, people can get in on the whole business, and you’ll be able get access as a patient. It’s not that it’s not happening, it is, but it’s still very limited in terms of access.
There used to be only 21 clinics that would prescribe cannabis and they only open, let’s say, once a week for about 3 or 4 hours. Only 3 out of 21 clinics open every day.
They have now increased the numbers to [approximately] 100 throughout Thailand. The unfortunate problem with that is, cultivation and production have been monopolized by anyone who works with the government or the government departments themselves. [Due to this] we now have a short supply that doesn’t [fulfill] demand.
Also, the information that comes out, people don’t understand it. They believe they can now grow [up to 6 plants] themselves.
GF: Are you allowed to grow 6 plants?
CKC: No. That is so far removed from reality. We are getting daily arrests right now in terms of cannabis, and we’re not talking about the big guys, we’re talking about [for example] an old lady who grew one plant and didn’t get it to the point of flowering yet. She got arrested.
GF: And when they found out she was just confused did they let her off?
CKC: No. Cannabis usage is still very much illegal here.
You are allowed to use cannabis if you have a prescription, and the prescription is linked to the medicine itself. That means, when I go and get my cannabis medicine, I will get a prescription for, say, one month. That permit allows me to use it for only one month.
But here’s the kicker, I’ve been getting cannabis medicine for over six months now, and it’s a very weak cannabis tincture that was actually made from brick weed. It was converted from seized products and made into a legal cannabis product that is being distributed to patients.
GF: Is that because the government has not set up a proper supply?
CKC: In terms of cultivation for the medicine itself, I think there’s only about 3 [cultivation] licenses. That’s for actual production, not just cultivation for research. It means that everything is still very limited.
[Also] getting the permits for the medicine, according to how long you are to use the medicine, is actually very silly. Right now I have been receiving cannabis for six months, if tomorrow I cease my medication and I’m no longer taking it, the permit no longer is covered, but THC is still in my system. And if I go outside and I get a random [drug] test on the side of the road, which does happen here in Thailand, even if I got my cannabis from a legal source, I can still get prosecuted.
GF: Asia, in general, is a region that has been incredibly harsh on cannabis use. Why is Thailand, at the very least, a little more open?
CKC: Our ONCB, which is our Office of Narcotics Control Board, they have actually been doing a very good job for a long time. [Cannabis] seems to be the least of their problems in terms of narcotics control. They’ve been trying to push for harm reduction teaching.
Another reason why it has been legalized is the government sees the ‘chi-ching.’
GF: What do you hope the cannabis industry looks like in Thailand a year from now?
CKC: I want to see more involvement from the private sector. And I’m not just talking about the big guys, I want the small guys and the medium guys. Everyone needs to get in and I want to see policies that reflect that.