More Thailand Dreams of High-End Cannabis Tourism
Should all cannabis be medical cannabis in Thailand?
Can we be honest? No one is getting excited about resorts where you eat and drink CBD-infused everything for 10 days while knowing there is no chance of just smoking a joint in the garden that overlooks the Andaman Sea, or diving into a fresh-baked pot brownie after a cannabis oil massage in the hot-springs spa.
Cannabis tourism in Thailand ought to be all about medicine
In the case of cannabis tourism, “recreation” (no further quotations) is keeping weed pigeonholed, not allowing the language of new cannabis research to get its footing. That may not be a huge deal in North America, but in Thailand, the medicinal benefit of cannabis, or more precisely weed, is at the heart of the sector’s unique value proposition.
The story of Thai weed builds on amazing new research that shows the benefits of cannabis and treatment testimonials, with treatment regimens and activities. And the research points to the thousand-year-old heritage of cannabis use in traditional Thai medicine.
The entourage effect is medicinal and requires unadulterated natural flowers
Last week, The Guardian ran Thailand dreams of high-end cannabis tourism after marijuana is legalized.
You might want your CBD-only resort to represent an appealing holiday, but it does not change the fact that a cannabis wellness retreat without a medical marijuana option sounds gimmicky. I have nothing against CBD. I know many people who use it daily and think it’s great. But that does not translate into a new sub-sector of tourism.
I think all cannabis in Thailand that’s legal should be medical. You can figure out which bit needs a special card and which bits are over the counter later.
What Thai cannabis tourism needs is the clarity of mind to call pure cannabis flowers medical marijuana and the freedom for tourists to purchase and smoke said flowers in that category.
The trust built up over decades of effective health care for international visitors cannot be leveraged by a cannabis industry that consists of the binary choices of CBD extracts vs. recreational weed, whether illegal, as it is now, or legal, which some think it will be pretty soon.
Cannabis tourism in Thailand that creates a healthy bond with the medical and wellness industry will generate a vision of an experience that will
Generate interest among wealthy tourists
Create a cannabis retreat sector at the intersection of tourism and medicine
Increase Thailand’s status as a hub for scientific research as well as medical marijuana services
Create a new vector for promotional writing for cannabis tourism that combines science and treatment breakthroughs with more traditional travel writing
Weed policy with Thai characteristics ought to start with the proposition that all weed that’s fit to consume is medical.
The term causing all the trouble: recreational cannabis
How did we get here? The Americans. Thailand imported the medical/recreational distinction from the US and thus created for themselves a stumbling block for profitable legalization within a sensible time frame.
The fuzzy distinction at the heart of the matter puts a lot of key pieces of Thailand’s legal weed puzzle in jeopardy. I blame it for severe delays, and I see it distorting the new industry with murky sanctions and skewed incentives.
If you frame the debate as recreational vs. medical, then the side that worries about the costs of cannabis use never gets a fair hearing. That’s how it went down in the US and why, despite massive revenues, most cannabis companies in the US are still technically illegal.
One myth generated by American legal usage is: that recreational cannabis includes THC and medical marijuana does not. This false dichotomy is becoming more common in Thailand. That’s a huge problem.
Thailand, and other Asian nations, and middle-income countries, should reject the use of the word recreational altogether.
The nonsense at the heart of the cannabis debate could result in a Frankenstein weed market, where all the compounds of cannabis are disassociated from one another and the only product not offered is the one that everyone wants, i.e., pure cannabis flowers.
The Cowen objection
For a steel-man version of the objection to recreational cannabis with no restrictions, I dug up these remarks from preeminent libertarian economist Tyler Cowen on US cannabis in 2018. The following is a post on his Marginal Revolution that introduces his Bloomberg piece on the subject:
Legalize pot, but don’t normalize it
You might wonder why we should be so worried about public marijuana use. To put it bluntly, I see intelligence as one of the ultimate scarcities when it comes to making the world a better place, and smoking marijuana does not make people smarter.
Even if you think there is no long-term damage, right after smoking a person is less able to perform most IQ-intensive tasks (with improvisational jazz as a possible exception).
By having city streets filled with pot, pot stores and the odor of pot, we are sending a signal that our society isn’t so oriented toward the intellect or bourgeois values. Even if that signal is reflecting a good bit of truth, it would be better not to acknowledge it too openly, just as most advocates of legalized prostitution don’t want to allow brothels on Main Street.
I want full legality but in some locales stronger restrictions on its place in the public sphere.
In the US, Cowen’s objection, which is surely more widespread than we think, is countered with appeals to liberty and freedom. The false recreation/medical axis stays in place and the controversy gets less cognitive and more strictly political.
In Thailand, the stakes are higher. The Cowen objection exists also in Thailand, and likely to a greater extent. It stays behind-the-scenes too but is real enough that attempts to steamroll the opposing side could be suicidal.
The befuddlement starts once you accept that recreational weed is whatever medical weed is not. At this point, you have already stopped making sense. In the excellent Can Legal Weed Win?: In the Blunt Realities of Cannabis Economics, by Robin Goldstein and Daniel Sumner, the authors begin with a smart meditation on recreational weed:
You hear a lot about recreational weed legalization…What does it mean for weed to be recreational?
Research and reflection suggest that the word recreational is a strange and vague term that people now use mostly when talking about drugs (or maybe four-wheel-drive vehicles). For drugs, recreational is largely used in the context of, and in opposition to, the word medical. The most precise way one can define the modern usage of recreational weed is as any legal weed that’s not medical weed,
The word recreational has recently come into style mostly or entirely concerning drugs, specifically as a way of referring to drugs that are not medical in the sense of having government-approved pharmaceutical uses. That is, the distinction is more a matter of law than of science or psychology.
The authors go on to show that the medical marijuana sector quickly collapses as recreational becomes legal. But these are American waters, not Thai.
Recreation-talk loosens the bond between cannabis tourism and medical tourism. That is antithetical to growth.
Smart Thai cannabis tourism wants to tie itself as tightly as it can to medical tourism -- to leverage the latter’s goodwill and positive international reputation.
A new day for cannabis in Thailand?
Yes, a date is set for the actual implementation of legal pullbacks from weed prohibition in Thailand. The deadline is June 8, 2022. Until that day, the Cannabis Act will be shrouded in confusion. It may turn out to be unfinished and perhaps only part of it will be implemented. It has not been made available to the public and many questions will remain unanswered until the first week of June.
One of those questions is whether anyone is still listening, whether the townspeople can be bothered with a boy yelling wolf, again, when a single wolf has yet to show.
How best to understand the fall of Thailand’s political party that championed weed legalization? Polling is so bad it suggests that the nascent cannabis sector, i.e., the producers and the consumers, have had it.
Many who were once eager to participate in the new marketplace are fed up with endless delays.
Doubtless, some members of the weed party are asking if there wasn’t one shindig “cannabis announcement” too many that amounted to little more than a photo-op buffet with friends.
On the ground, it sure feels like the thrill of legalization is gone. The mood has shifted in Thailand as poverty has increased and lives have been decimated by Covid lockdowns. Cannabis legal reform should have generated more jobs by now. It should have generated revenue by now. Very little has happened.
The Examiner, a paper for foreigners in Thailand, breaks it down in one (long) sentence:
The drive to legalize pot pursued by the Bhumjaithai Party may, in time, prove popular with Thai people as a source of income or potential health benefits but for now, it has left law enforcement agencies and the police facing a minefield and a new challenge to determine what is legal and what is illegal even after June 8th next when the ministerial order to remove cannabis as a schedule 5 listed narcotic has full legal effect.
Efforts of the once-popular “weed party”, nicknamed by its members, have resulted in confusion, dashed hopes and disappointment. Legalization fatigue has set in and the weed party is toast. I think that is the best explanation for the fall of the Bhumjaithai party.
They started at 10.33%; today they poll at 1.88%, a shock by any measure. Popularity was theirs to lose. And they lost it.
Does that mean the blame for the legalization delays in Thailand over the past 3 years lies at the fancy feet of the photo-op buffet weed party? I don’t think so.
Imagine for a second that the weed party hired a Japanese PR whiz to spin the news that Thailand has lost interest in their political party. This would be a good place for the PR gal or guy to make the case for a societal backlash against the rush to legalize a drug that spreads more harm than advocates are willing to admit. (Yes, Japan is a free-world outlier in its cannabis intolerance.)
A slogan could be: “It’s not the party, it’s the people stupid,” or something like that.
A huge majority -- 86.30% -- said they supported its use because research confirmed marijuana could serve medical purposes and provide treatment alternatives. Thailand remains open to and enthusiastic about weed.
At the same time, our imaginary Japanese spinmeister has a point: there are, in principle, other explanations for the multi-year stage fright of The Thai Cannabis Act. What explains a delay of 3 years?
The strategy in the US assumed the game was a blood sport. It went like this: Call it medical marijuana and require registration so the prohibitionists have no reason to cause a fuss. Once the infrastructure is in place, focus on local elections and introduce the category of recreational weed as an alternative to medical. As tax revenues flow in, jettison the medical and transition to all recreational all the time.
That framework makes legal reform in Thailand much more objectionable to traditionalists than medical marijuana has ever been or would ever be. I’m saying that pushback against recreational weed is quiet, both here and in the US.
What is the most important source of the delays and stagnation of legal reforms that were supposed to usher in an industry that everyone wants? It is not the Weed Party’s Manyata attitude, any more than it is some backlash against the liberalization of weed laws dreamed up by a PR guy from a country with no intention of cannabis legal reform.
Held captive by a false picture of weed
As I mentioned, The Guardian just came out with Thailand dreams of high-end cannabis tourism after marijuana is legalized, The piece is rich in dialogue from people who live cheek and Jowell with other cannabis producers and consumers in Thailand, drawing together a variety of everyday elements of contemporary cannabis culture to assess the prospects of Thai cannabis tourism.
Rebecca Root interviewed me for the article and reported accurately that I was optimistic that the bill will help Thailand rebuild its economy post-Covid. Here’s the quote:
Nothing as small as marijuana use can save [an economy], but I think it could provide a spark.
Yes. A categorical mistake at the base of the new industry could be catastrophic for the reason I mentioned in the quote. The Thai economy is in dire need of a spark after the economic devastation of Covid lockdowns and the sealing of the borders.
All weed that’s fit to consume is medical. That’s the best solution in this case. The Guardian piece is instructive, specifically where the author misquotes me on this point at the end of our interview. Here’s the quote in context:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Linn says, is torn between two extremes; the tourist advocates who want no regulation and the narcotics board who want laws in place. “I’m hoping that the FDA will not listen to the two extremes and … provide clear legal space for recreational use without conditions,” Linn says.
No. I’m hoping that the FDA will provide a clear legal space for pure cannabis flowers. That, as should be clear by now, is different from a legal space for recreational use without conditions. I think insisting on “space for recreational use without conditions” could ruin the legalization movement in Thailand; it has certainly slowed progress.
I am not complaining about a misquote; I’m grateful for it. I had a fine interview with the author who was diligent and genuinely curious. I’m saying: Look how easy it is for this false picture of legalization to grab ahold of our thinking.
In the same article, there are two captions -- 2! -- that use recreational in the same bogus sense. I want to think they were written by the graphic department and give another example of how easy it is to accept a turn of phrase. The captions are so perfect they’re funny:
1. New legislation in Thailand could create a recreational cannabis market worth more than $400m in just a couple of years, according to some estimates.
2. Allowing recreational cannabis use could expand the current range of therapies available, say advocates.
Number 2 is especially rich as it shuffles the two categories so that X is expanding the range of not-X! By definition, recreational use cannot include therapies because therapies are medical.
Still, there is room for optimism. Many cannabis businesses are pressing on in Thailand and making news as they prepare for consumers in the new marketplace. A glance at a few of them however, reveals what could be a troubling trend. I wish nothing but the best for all these entrepreneurs. They are struggling against confusion written into regulations they have yet to see.
The new market depends on their freedom to develop products and services and the consumers’ freedom to make purchase decisions. The question is whether they will have the freedom to move within the cannabis market according to their sense of their customers’ needs.
What will legal reform of cannabis look like? 2 scenarios
Looking closer at these examples, I have two theories as to what these businesses tell us about what will make the Thai cannabis sector grow.
Theory A (The best-case scenario for high growth)
Flat-out legalization of recreational weed, which I think will lead to more legal wrangling later, or it could be with the legalization of medical marijuana understood as fundamentally pure cannabis flowers. This latter path would be the best outcome.
Theory B (Not the apocalypse, simply more of the same chaos)
The formula for making everything cannabis legal EXCEPT product that is over .03 percent THC or whatever becomes the overarching policy, while dispensaries continue to offer THC oil and cannabis oil with high THC content. In other words, the pessimists win the day, and very little changes. What is your take?