Thai Weed is Medicine
A proposal for success at the dawn of legal cannabis in Asia: Why advocates of the legalization of real weed in Thailand ought to drop the medical/recreational distinction
In March, a policy panel was tasked with the mission of resuscitating Thailand’s languishing medical tourism industry.
Before Thailand locked down in 2021, the country was taking close to 90 cents of every dollar spent by medical tourists in Asia, treating over 1 million foreigners a year.
Repairing the sector is essential for the normalization of the economy; the urgency of the panel’s mission is self-evident.
The project, led by Vice Health Minister Dr. Sophon Mekthon, produced five proposals for healing an industry gutted by lockdowns and facing the worst inflation in 40 years. Two of these proposals recommend the legalization of “recreational cannabis”.
The 2 cannabis-centered steps to breathe life into medical tourism
1. “Launching a wellness industry… highlighting the recreational use of cannabis and other traditional herbs. The panel will support local participation by providing instructional courses on medical history and culture to attract tourists.”
2. “To globalize Thailand’s cannabis metaverse by making a business model, a “cannabis digital asset”, which will allow people to access recreational cannabis businesses via virtual reality technology.”
Each of these initiatives assumes the availability of weed (cannabis flowers that contain nature’s equilibrium of CBD and THC). Yet here in the second week of May no one seems to know whether dried cannabis flowers (what I will call weed) will be taken off the list of forbidden narcotics.
If weed remains illegal, with only CBD and hemp taken off the prohibition list, then the 2 aspects of the plan involving cannabis are little more than a dream of what might be — someday — down the proverbial road.
If weed does become legal on or around June 9th, it means that each of these cannabis-related remedies could be a key action plan for healing the broken bones not only of Thai medical tourism but of the entire tourist industry in Thailand. As everyone knows, the national economy will not regain stability until tourism bounces back; the stakes could not be higher.
In what follows, I break down the first step of cannabis’ role in the recovery, with accompanying questions and suggestions. (Next week’s newsletter will concentrate on Step #2.)
Step #1: “Highlighting the recreational use of cannabis and other traditional herbs”
Thai stick re-imagined for the 21st century
Weed in context: an herb in traditional Thai medicine for hundreds of years
Cannabis-infused recipes in Thai cooking are intimately connected to the heritage of traditional medicine. Before weed was illegalized under the guidance of law enforcement from the US, middle-aged Thai workers could smoke weed in the morning to increase their productivity and older folks could look forward to it in meals in the evening as remedies for muscle aches, paralysis, numbness of feet and other challenges of aging. More on this later.
Dried cannabis stems and leaves were often slow-boiled in soups and curries to add that "pleasant savory taste" or umami -- to use the borrowed Japanese term -- in the same way that MSG is added today. Unlike MSG however, cannabis was thought to have curative power. And cannabis tea made with leaves and stems aided digestion.
Now cannabis prohibition is slowly fading and current scientific research is proving the validity of these healthful insights passed down from generation to generation. Why not take this opportunity to return weed to its original context.
Various uses of cannabis were aspects of a set of traditional practices that included herbs, bodywork and spiritual healing – a system of medicine with its roots in Southeast Asian Buddhism.
Ironically, many Buddhists in Thailand today are loath to use weed because it has been stigmatized as a decadent drug that is consumed with the aim of getting “drunk”.
The “recreational use” flim-flam
Unfortunately, as the language in the outline of the panel’s proposals demonstrates, cannabis legalization-talk in Thailand is often shaped by a colonized mindset. The assumption, made by some legal experts in particular, is that everyone must play by the rules of the game dictated by the West.
The Vice Minister of Health mentioned that he would like to see recreational cannabis extend medical therapies. Respectfully, recreational cannabis can never extend medical therapies because recreational cannabis is by definition cannabis that is not medical.
Recreational use is an alien concept in Thailand. Of course, the term was never used to refer to cannabis prior to its being illegalized. But then how could it have been? In those days all cannabis was seen as medicine.
The very idea of recreation is a Western notion that only gained currency once the West became affluent enough to assume that many people had plenty of extra time on their hands at the end of the workday and on weekends. And then came vacations.
Then cannabis lawyers used it as a way to distinguish medical marijuana with its restrictions from weed with fewer constraints. Why should cannabis legalization-talk in Thailand rely on a distinction created in the US by attorneys plotting a work-around to stymie prohibitionist federal law?
Obstacles that recreational cannabis faces in the US
Yes, the recreational/medical divide won the battle for legalization in the US. The conceptual confusion it introduced however, has not worn well. The Americans were wrong on prohibition and they are wrong on the distinction between recreational and medical marijuana.
The North American cannabis sector finds itself in the absurd – and costly – position of boasting record-breaking revenues while admitting it is in regulatory recession.
“Decriminalization is so important to this industry,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kenneth Shea, “and the can keeps getting kicked down the line.”
What does the regulatory recession in legal cannabis have to do with the word recreation? The word breeds quiet resistance to legalization.
It lets worries of mindless overuse by adults and unsupervised minors fester in the minds of decision-makers steeped in decades of prohibitionist propaganda.
Federal illegalization of cannabis is still in place in the US. BTIG analyst Camilo Lyon puts it this way:
Cannabis, with its many federal and state regulatory restrictions still in place, has been driven into recession by slow-moving policy changes.
The cannabis industry in North America is currently held captive, waiting helplessly for federal reform that never seems to arrive.
I submit that federal legal reform in the US would have already occurred had cannabis lawyers held fast to the medical category and left it to the states to decide how to regulate medical marijuana. But I digress.
The acceptance of weed that the Vice Health Minister envisions would be better served if marketers, lawmakers, teachers, entrepreneurs and resort communications specialists could promote natural dry cannabis flowers as one aspect in an array of wellness options — weed as the optional capstone of a cannabis-wellness way of life.
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Traditional Thai medicine is absolutely right: cannabis is medicine
There is still time to fix this mistake and increase the appeal of legal weed for locals, tourists, investors, importers and exporters. The answer lies in traditional Thai medicine itself. That tradition does not limit the range of medicine’s capacity to cases of urgent need for medical attention. Yes, CBD is medical. So is weed.
Weed is not magical. It does not become medicine in the presence of extreme cases like chronic pain and epilepsy, where its efficacy has been scientifically demonstrated. Weed is always medical. It also helps maintain overall wellness. To the degree that’s true, calling it recreational is counterproductive. What’s more, it just doesn’t make sense!
Besides, recreational use sounds childish. It also has the ring of drug abuse. It is a linguistic missed opportunity to emphasize the role of weed in the cultural heritage of Thailand.
Language matters. It impacts international tourists just as it does a local Buddhist who suffers from insomnia. The tourist considering a company retreat to a wellness resort will think twice before floating the idea that the team travel to Thailand to get “baked” with recreational cannabis -- just as a local bristles at the idea of cannabis that is used recreationally, which to her means it’s used to get “drunk”.
Why use alien language that reinforces anti-cannabis propaganda?
Recreational use is the furthest thing from a family-friendly name for a substance that has been stigmatized by the full force of the American Drug Enforcement Agency for the past 50 years.
In a clever PR move, the Minister of Health said he will hand out 1 million cannabis plants to promote the new policy that allows residents to grow an unlimited number of cannabis plants at home. The reform treats cannabis like any other plant, allowing anyone to grow as many as they like. This is a historic milestone not only for Thailand but for all of Asia. Try this anywhere else in Asia and you risk arrest.
However, the devil still lurks in the hazy details. Along with the announcement of the 1 million cannabis plants are these caveats:
The cannabis grown must be of medical grade and used for medicinal purposes only.
According to the NIH, medical-grade cannabis has natural levels of THC. And according to life on earth, the most common way to consume it is to smoke it. Yet:
Growing cannabis for recreational use is not allowed and smoking marijuana is still prohibited.
Come on. According to the cannabis-based action plan, freedom to smoke weed is an optimal outcome of legalization. The question is how to achieve it. It wouldn’t hurt to begin by asserting the obvious: the primary delivery mechanism for the consumption of medical marijuana is the marijuana cigarette.
Also, it must be said that the most important consequence of allowing people to grow cannabis at home is so those with medical challenges can grow their own medicine.
Anyone who has followed cannabis legalization in Thailand since 2018 has seen this resistance to weed show up at every turn. Yet there are hints, just like the cues from the Vice Health Minister’s proposals, that its value is understood by some.
Is it possible that there is something vaguely shameful in the very idea of recreation to the grown men and women of Thailand, of Southeast Asia, of Asia?
Or is it possible that they see something that the advocates of weed in the West do not? Imagine a weed user in the US who has never thought of her own consumption as having anything to do with medicine. When asked, she says she uses cannabis recreationally. Now imagine that she is a regular user, taking a few tokes every morning, noontime and evening.
Assuming that each use lasts for at lease 2 hours, that amounts to no less than 6 hours of recreation a day, every day. With moment’s reflection on the implications of the term, an explanation of a society’s reluctance to embrace recreational use becomes apparent.
It’s time to play a medical language-game with a different set of rules
One objection to referring to weed as medicine is that it would create too many obstacles – require recurring physicals and check-ups and lots of paperwork. The question I suggest is this: since when?
Once you reject the Western vocabulary of recreational use, you can also throw out the Western criteria for what strings must attach to the word medical. This is a circumstance that calls for applying a principle of regulation with a light touch.
In the language-game of medicine by fiat, the patient lives without medicine until an accident occurs or disease is detected. Then prescriptions are written that precede medical intervention. The thought continues: if people want to use weed while they are “Okay”, it must be for fun, for recreation.
“I’m not suffering from chronic pain; I use cannabis recreationally.” People who say this sell themselves and cannabis short. The remark shows a prior acceptance of a narrow, interventionist conception of what medicine is and does.
Wellness does not play by the rules of fiat medicine. Within the context of wellness, medicine becomes an aspect of the everyday -- in a life that is lived well: you find it in the food you eat, the liquids you drink, the fresh air you breathe, the money you earn, the thoughts you think, the moral acts you perform and the weed you smoke.
Weed is not for everyone and it’s certainly not for minors; yet the word recreational suggests exactly the opposite. That truth comes as a matter of fact in the context of weed as medicine.
For those who do benefit from the flowers of what is arguably the most useful plant on earth, their consumption means mitigating or avoiding altogether both illness and injury.
Some people prefer to get high only once in a while. Others don’t like getting high at all. They don’t require nor do they care for that kind of medicine. Mazel Tov!
Cannabis consumption that excludes weed can also pave a path to wellness, with CBD and innovative CBD products. Research on the long-term benefit of regular consumption of quality CBD continues to amaze.
Lest we forget, one of the triumphs of anti-cannabis propaganda and law over the past many decades has been an international freeze on open cannabis research.
The applied science of cannabis is just getting warmed up, as is chronicled in many new texts on the subject. One excellent introduction to the research being carried out is, Cannabis Is Medicine: How Medical Cannabis and CBD Are Healing Everything from Anxiety to Chronic Pain. The authors elaborate on the growing scientific consensus that cannabis and CBD heal and treat inflammation, chronic pain, nausea, and seizures as well as mental health issues like insomnia, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and stress.
Emphasize Thailand’s comparative advantage: Thai weed is medicine and has been for hundreds of years
Dispensary of Traditional Thai Medicine @ Chow Hospital (where weed could be included in the inventory)
In May, Thailand’s board of the National Health Security Office included three medicines with THC in its list of free medicines for certain Thai hospital patients. These are classic Thai remedies re-invented as oils. The oils are the culmination of weed processed in high-tech extractors and then mixed with other oils from a variety of traditional Thai herbs.
One, called Kae Lom Kae Sen, for sleep and appetite, another, Suk Saiyat, for paralysis treatment and the other, Tham Lai Phra Sumen, for muscle aches and numbness in hands and feet.
I think it’s tragic that there are no plans to include these medicines in inventories in the hundreds of cannabis dispensaries across Thailand. And they should be offered at wellness resorts and promoted on their websites. Weed is not morphine. Locking it up in hospitals as the cannabis market opens is like fastening ankle weights to a runner just before he gets on his mark.
Tourists could try them before a massage or a soak in warm springs. Entrepreneurs could try them out in their markets, both domestically and in international negotiations. These 3 simple medical marijuana oils represent so many lost opportunities.
Hopefully, change comes on the 9th of June, and containers on counters like the one in the pic above will soon include all of these THC-rich traditional Thai medicines -- as well as fresh dried cannabis flowers, with some rolled into 21st-century Thai sticks.
Hallway from dispensary to cafe @ Chow Hospital
From the perspective of a Thai medical doctor, recreational use is nothing more than an imported legal flim-flam that hides the light of cannabis in Thailand under a shell. It’s not helpful.
When the Minister of Health promoted his 1 million pot plant giveaway on Facebook in May, he also revealed 3 new legal reforms:
1. People can showcase their cannabis and hemp-related products and wisdom and sell their products nationwide.
2. Entrepreneurs and businesses can compete freely in Thailand’s cannabis market as there will be no concessions.
3. Small sellers of marijuana-related products do not need to register with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This is nothing less than an outline for free market cannabis capitalism. The only thing missing is the catalyst of the marketplace, the verifiable #1 preference of consumers, i.e., the weed.
The reforms listed above show an appreciation of the value of market-tested improvement in the new sector; the policy changes illustrate that regulators are aware of the need for a light touch and that what the sector needs is a regulatory environment that gives ambitious, passionate and motivated cannabis providers the freedom to give it a shot. Will regulators practice the Laissez-faire approach that these remarks evoke? Let’s hope so.
I think that we can all agree on this much: revenues generated by the citizens of this middle-income country freely exchanging cannabis products with one another will be a beautiful sight; yet the capital, as meaningful as it will be, will pale in comparison to the revenue generated by providing all-things-cannabis to tourists.
The revenue generated by catering to tourists will be dwarfed by revenues from Direct Foreign Investment into a robust cannabis export regime. And that the business of exporting Thai cannabis in an international market that reached $13.2 billion in 2021 is limitless — assuming all of this exchange between free citizens goes on in a marketplace centered around weed. Only real weed can generate real revenue.
Before moving on to the second step in the plan for the role of cannabis in medical tourism, consider the following rewrite of step #1:
“Launching a wellness industry… highlighting the adult and medical use of cannabis and other traditional herbs.”