While the legalities surrounding marijuana and cannabis differ widely from country to country, the worldwide consensus seems to be that hemp has definite healing powers. In Thailand, progressive new legislation is allowing modern methods to transform a once traditional medicine into a wellness wonder.
When Pañpuri Wellness, one of downtown Bangkok’s most luxurious spa facilities, introduced their new ‘Special Onsen’ package, it garnered more attention than usual, since the “special” ingredient turned out to be marijuana.
Described as a “holistic cannabis wellness experience”, it begins with a de-stressing Cannabis Herbal Bath that promises soothing benefits delivered via herbal bags in the water that contain cannabis leaves, as well as Thai herbs like lemongrass and zeodary. Followed by a trip to Pañpuri’s Cannabis Steam Room and the detoxifying Cannabis Himalayan Salt Sauna, the whole package aims to reduce muscular fatigue and promote restful sleep.
But the “trip” doesn’t stop there, as Pañpuri also offers guests a taste of cannabis at the bar, with delectable dishes such as classic nachos with cannabis dips, cannabis-infused salad with grilled salmon, and clean and green cannabis detoxifier drinks. It all sounds tantalising, but I find myself puzzled by just one thing… isn’t marijuana illegal in Thailand?
The short answer is yes; however, the longer answer takes into account the fact that in December of 2018 Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes. And while recreational use is still banned, the cultivation and possession of cannabis is now legal for those who meet strict eligibility requirements. It’s been a very progressive step on Thailand’s part to adopt these new laws, and it’s definitely in line with changing global attitudes towards the once wicked weed.
To date, only two countries in the world have actually legalised commercial cannabis production and sale nationwide – Uruguay in 2013 and Canada in 2018 – but many other nations have eased restrictions on medical marijuana, which can be administered through capsules, lozenges, tinctures, dermal patches, oral and dermal sprays, and good old-fashioned smoking. In America, several dozen states have legalised cannabis for medical purposes, although, confusingly, its use remains prohibited at the federal level.
Bizarre legal contradictions such as the current situation in the USA are what make the whole topic of cannabis consumption such a global grey area, with many governments happy to promote wellness through weed, but refusing to condone the “getting high” part. Consequently, this is precisely why cannabidiol, or CBD, is the current buzzword in wellness circles, since it’s generally accepted that CBD delivers the benefits without the “buzz”.
In a nutshell, CBD is one of at least 113 identified cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, and it’s quite separate from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the one that gets users high (found in the plant’s flowering buds). These days, as people attempt to cash on in the current cannabis craze, the letters CBD have started to appear on everything from soap to soda pop. So, are these hyped-up health benefits believable?
“For skin, there are studies to show that CBD has many benefits,” says John Bailey, a consultant and shareholder at the Bangkok-based Chanabis Group, which produces a line of CBD teas. “It’s an antioxidant, and it helps reduce inflammation, so it can help with anti-aging. And there are studies to show it works on people with eczema, acne, and psoriasis.”
John, a New Zealand native who’s been in Thailand for 12 years, admits that he’s always liked cannabis, for recreational purposes, but started taking CBD more seriously because of Covid-19, hearing that it could help medically as well as mentally, as a stress reliever. And his interest has only grown stronger since then.
“In March last year my wife and I had an opportunity to invest in a cannabis farm,” he says, although he admits it actually ended up being a scam and court proceedings are still underway. “But through that, as a sort of gateway, we got introduced to people at the offices of the Ministry of Health, and the cannabis tea idea came from a professor – she’s like in her 70s or 80s – who’s into medical cannabis.”
Currently, Chanabis teas are only sold through select cafés, since commercial packaging and distribution requires dodging a whole other level of red tape. “You can sell it in a café, if they’re producing it fresh. You just supply them the ingredients to make the teas. If we went to a factory and made cannabis tea in a sealed bottle or tea bag, then that’s not legal without a Thai FDA certification. But when you sell through a café, it’s just an herb, like basil. In Thailand, CBD is legal as long as it comes from the leaf, stem, seed, or root.”
Of course, John points out that he’s not a scientist or doctor, but from his own experiences and observations CBD works wonders when it comes to pain relief, reducing anxiety, and helping with sleep. “I also use cannabis shampoo,” he laughs. “It’s really good. I guess what I love about cannabis is there is this whole new industry forming around an amazing plant and we are only just starting to understand it.”
Since John and his wife are not growers, they get their raw materials from Golden Triangle Group (GTG), a leading name in Thailand’s burgeoning hemp industry. Based in Chiang Rai province, one of GTG’s claims to fame is their ultra-scientific approach when it comes to producing extremely high quality, potent extracts for use in medical, cosmetic, and food and beverage products.
“At the end of 2018, when the Thai government announced the first law that would support medical cannabis, and the research of cannabis, that was when GTG was founded,” says Kris Thirakaosal, the company’s exuberant Managing Director. An ex-investment banker, Kris is a shrewd businessman who admits he’s always looking for the next big thing. Through his dealings in Europe, he saw how interest in CBD there was heralding an upcoming “green” gold rush, and he knew Thailand was ideally suited to be part of this botanical boom.
“From the beginning we wanted to do CBD,” he continues, explaining that since Thailand didn’t have a proper CBD strain, GTG acquired the genetic intellectual property rights for Cannatonic, a trademarked strain produced by the award-winning, Spanish-born marijuana maestro Jaime Carrión Garcia – an absolute legend in his field.
“We then brought it to Thailand, legally, by signing an MOU exclusively with Chiang Rai Rajabhat University (CRRU),” he says, pointing out that the indoor cultivation project operates much like a selective breeding research lab. As for Jaime, he came to Thailand just before the pandemic, to help get things going, and has since decided to stay on. “He’s our senior cultivation director, he’s a shareholder, he’s our family,” says Kris with a wide smile.
Meanwhile, the chairman of GTG is none other than Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a member of Thailand’s very powerful Chearavanont family. With such heavy hitters as part of his team, it seems only fitting that Kris acts as an expert adviser to the Thai Parliament when drafting new laws pertaining to the use of CBD in foods, supplements, and cosmetics. During our interview he reveals that brand-new legislation now allows up to 1 percent total CBD for use in cosmetic products.
“Pañpuri have been working with us for the last six months,” Kris tells me, “as do several other beauty brands, both Thai and international, because we’re the only ones here producing CBDA in full-spectrum form, and that’s perfect for skin.”
In layman’s terms, the cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) referred to is like CBD in its raw form – before the plant is exposed to heat (decarboxylation) – making it best for external use. Meanwhile, the term “full-spectrum” indicates the end product contains multiple cannabis plant extracts, including essential oils, terpenes (special aromatic compounds), and other cannabinoids. It becomes a bit of an impromptu chemistry class, but science really is the driving force here.
While all of this is good news for Thailand’s domestic cannabis industry, the laws governing other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, remain iron clad and refuse to redeem reefer. Malaysia has hinted at taking steps towards allowing medical marijuana, but that debate appears far from settled.
“Thailand’s hemp law allows producers like us to export, subject to destination country law,” Kris informs me, adding that Korea and Japan are among the importers in Asia. “I heard some movement in Hong Kong as well. We can even sell it for beauty or recreational use in Europe. But in Singapore… I don’t think it will happen in the next four lifetimes!” he laughs.
So, if laws remain restrictive elsewhere, could cannabis tourism eventually become a growth sector in Thailand, catering to those interested in experiencing hemp’s healing properties?
“I think it will be one of the major drivers,” says Kris, without hesitation. “I’m hoping to see somewhere high-end, like Chiva-Som, incorporating cannabis and CBD very soon. After all, we have a history of cannabis as traditional medicine in Thailand that’s more than 200 years old.”
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Prestige Thailand.