Thailand is Changing the Weed Language-Game
A look at the potentially astonishing economic impact of keeping Thai weed medical.
The clash of weed language games
I was in on a Zoom meeting with foreign investors planning a startup in Thailand to export THC flowers (real weed) today. The CEO exclaimed with gleeful disbelief that he witnessed a new market emerge in a flash in Bangkok, right after the historic legalization day of June 9th.
He said that official announcements were that only medical cannabis was legal in Thailand, yet dispensaries, weed trucks and cafes were selling weed everywhere, and that (therefore) recreational use is legal also.
I want to say that the CEO did not make a false statement. Rather he was attempting to make sense of a new paradigm, as everyone was, with language from an older language game.
One of my tropes is that all Thai weed should be seen as medical weed. Another trope is that cannabis tourism can provide a pivot point on which the Thai economy could turn around. These meta-narratives seem quixotic to some.
One objection goes like this: “Medical weed users are only a fraction of the cannabis-consuming community. In addition, medical weed brings expensive and time-consuming restrictions that harm the bottom line for the producer and annoy the consumer.”
An objection to my second trope is that the impact of capital infusion from tourists consuming cannabis is minuscule compared to the bazooka-size holes that Covid lockdowns blew in the Thai economy.
To the rejecters of weed-as-always-medical and to the pessimists who doubt its economic power, let me suggest: never underestimate the force of cultural momentum in the fullness of time — especially when the push comes from entrepreneurs who sense a new leeway and latitude that is unprecedented in the markets that preceded it.
One way to express this is in terms of the history of weed in Thailand and the birth of its free-wheeling weed market. Unless current trends in Thai weed are stopped with surprise enforcement, the nascent market here will continue to shape into one with more market freedom and more personal choice than in any other weed market in the world.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that this greater freedom and greater choice is the result of Thailand changing the rules of the game — by changing how producers and consumers talk about weed.
All Thai Weed is Medical? Why?
A medical marijuana bus in the US
The ones who wrote legalization into Thai law say that all cannabis — from real weed to CBD, from flowers to extracts, is medical. Why is it so difficult to take them at their word?
Brackett out “recreational use” for a second; pretend it doesn’t exist (you only have to go back in time a few years).
I’ve assembled reminders about the confusion at the heart of the concept of “recreational use” here, so let’s press on to a more all-encompassing apology for the notion that “all Thai weed is medical”.
Imagine a world where no one ever heard of “recreational use” and everyone assumed that all weed was medical. Now imagine the next logical step: all those who treated it otherwise were wrong, childish, fools, anti-social, or just plain stupid. Now imagine the market for weed as unregulated as the market for any over-the-counter remedy. That’s Thailand.
Sooner rather than later, if the weed market can project itself through the lens of the ancient Thai traditions of herbal remedies in which Ganja is once again accepted as a critical ingredient.
What am I talking about?
I am saying that the medical inflection of Thai weed can keep the markets free and unleash a pent-up entrepreneurial spirit that holds out the country’s most realistic entrepreneurial hope of prosperity and riches. And this is the hope that could be the spark that turns this shattered economy around. And lets some players make major bank.
In (colossal) contrast, to consume medical weed in the US, you must have a serious qualifying condition that’s approved by a doctor.
The bus in the picture above offers weed to those who qualify in the US. Doctor fees start at around $250 per person; patients usually pay a state fee of $75. And then one can choose from the limited range of weed products on the bus. And pay for those. Median money gone from the wallet before exiting said bus: $375 -$450 — if you qualify.
Who wonders why consumers pressed for an alternative, even if it meant using a term as cringe as “recreational use”? Frankly, no one wonders.
The wonder is why the providers of the alternative, after effectively collapsing the medical market, find it so difficult to turn a profit themselves. The market where recreational use has a central place is tied up in regulatory knots. If no relief is provided from the political class that claims to be for it, it will lose its fight to the death with black market weed.
On the other hand, I know people growing legal weed in the Northeast of Thailand who are licensed, follow all policy regulations, and cultivate strong THC flowers for the domestic market. Is it medical weed? Of course it is; weed for “recreational use” is against the law!
If they want to export their crop, they have to play by international rules which is much easier and less expensive since they are left alone to produce the product that their overseas customers will want more of.
I also know growers in the US who had to video tape themselves planting seeds and prove they owned and controlled every step of the process to come, from trimming flowers to harvest to delivery to display in a dispensary.
Why? Because they were complying with state law to supply weed for “recreational use”. (I leave aside, for now, the roadblocks to credit and savings put up by the federal government against legal weed producers.)
And that is the capstone of the “Thai weed is medicine” trope: Thailand is under no obligation to play by established rules as it forges a new path for legal weed, where a freer market depends on more mature users to make it work.
Yet “recreational use” is longer than the longest tapeworm and has already worked its way into all of our systems of thought. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the language game of “recreational use”, has been rejected.
The result is a free market and lower costs, where providers are left alone to develop and provide a product, and consumers are expected to behave like grown-ups.