Is Ganja the future cash crop for Thailand

23 Mar 2021

Wilai Kampilool, now 62, spends his time farming after retiring from schooling two years ago. His house is in Buri Ram's Khu Muang district, in Ban Sok Nak, Tambon Hin Lek Fai. The village has recently become a popular destination for those interested in learning about or seeing ganja plants (marijuana).

"I never imagined myself being involved with marijuana growing. I've been told it's a narcotic since I was a teenager.

However, as I learned more about the plant's health benefits, I have become more interested in growing it. 'Why not?' I said to myself "Wilai said.

"I fully support the state's policy to legalize marijuana so that we can plant it and use it to cure diseases. Using ganja as a medicinal herb is tapping into our old wisdom, and it's something we should  preserve" he said.

Growing ganja has provided the villager's new hope for diversification of their income. After the government legalized cannabis for medicinal and research purposes in February 2019, ganja has grown in popularity as a valuable cash crop. According to the Kasikorn Research Centre, the market value of medical cannabis in Thailand will vary between 3.6 to 7.2 billion baht this year.

On February 11, Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul launched the Non Malai model in Ban Sok Nak to promote cannabis cultivation among households. He provided cannabis seeds to the Non Malai Thai Herb Group Enterprise, marked the first step in allowing households to grow six ganja plants legally in their yards.

Buri Ram's image is also being transformed into the "City Of Ganja," as well as the location where the annual ganja expo is expected to be held. Meanwhile, ganja clinics are springing up all over the area. More than 15 community businesses are growing cannabis plants to supply dried flowers to local hospitals for the production of cannabis oil.

Moreover, ganja is in high demand in the food and cosmetics industries. Following the government's removal of ganja leaves, stalks, stumps, and roots from the narcotics list on December 15 of last year, some local restaurants and resorts are now offering food and drinks featuring a mix of ganja leaves (the flowers and seeds are still in the type-5 narcotic list). Health product prototypes are still being created, and spas and wellness centers in Buri Ram will soon be able to sell them with ganja extract.

Individuals are legally forbidden from cultivating cannabis and hemp unless they register as a community enterprise. Each group must have at least seven members and must have a working deal with a local hospital, that includes small-scale Tambon Health Promotion Hospitals (THPH).

Wilai is among the first seven people in the country to be allowed to grow six marijuana plants in his garden. He waters the plants every morning and analyzes the stems, leaves, and soil. When he finds yellow spots caused by spider mites, he gently flips up some leaves and removes the tiny bugs by hand. He also sprays sick leaves to natural pesticides including neem oil.

"Since our group grows the plant for medical purposes, no chemicals are allowed. We know that our plants must be safe from hazardous chemicals "he said

Plants have to grow in a safe environment within 10 meters of a home. The nursery where the plant grows is simple, made of bamboo poles with green scaffolding mesh and a barbed-wire fence. The entrance door must have a lock and two signboards, one of which must state that the site is for the production of a type-5 narcotic, and the other of which must show the owner's name and address. The Buri Ram Agricultural Office also requires GPS coordinates to keep track of how many ganja plots are in its system.

Aor sor mor, or health and wellbeing volunteers, frequent nurseries daily to check on the plants' health. If they come across some dry or fallen leaves, they will collect them and measure them. They submit the data to the hospital daily, and the hospital then submits the information to the Food and Drug Administration. Local police also pay a daily visit to the site to ensure its safety. Wilai has a CCTV camera in the nursery that records every movement.

The ganja garden plot seems to be a typical nursery from the village roadside and is easy to break into. Fortunately, no attempt has been made so far.

"The project is a project of people of our community. In our village, everyone knows who is growing ganja "Chief of public health volunteers Riam Seetha, 43, said.

For six years, 30 PHC members grew herbs and vegetables on an organic farm at the resort before beginning to grow ganja plants. The herbs were sent to Khu Muang hospital, while the vegetables were sent to the resort's kitchen. When the hospital decided to open a Medical Cannabis Clinic almost two years ago, they searched for local cannabis suppliers and chose PHC.

To start its medical cannabis cultivation project, PHC has partnered with the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO). The community grew four varieties of ganja plants during the first year, including Thai varieties Hang Krarok and Tanow Sri, as well as two imported varieties, Sensi and Charlotte Angle, whose seeds they received from the GPO. Later on, the group decided to develop only the Dutch Charlotte Angel variety. "The Charlotte Angel variety produces a lot of CBD. It is the compound that Khu Muang Hospital needs to treat epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease patients "she said

The community enterprise grows about 90 ganja plants per crop based on the hospital's requirements. According to Sasikarn Lorjilopart, the chairwoman of PHC, the group donated its first cultivation of 6kg of ganja flowers to the hospital for free last year.

After Khu Muang Hospital bought the dry flowers for 40,000 baht per kilogram, the community enterprise started to earn from its second crop. Khu Muang allowed the farmer group to use leaves, roots and stems after the second harvest. Today, the group partnered with universities to produce PHC-branded healthcare products. They have toner, sunscreen, soap, toothpaste, and herbal drinks prototypes on hand. The products will soon be available for sale at Play La Ploen Boutique Resort and Adventure Camp's Arokaya Wellness Sala.

PHC has also worked with the National Science and Technology Development Agency's (NSTDA) Characterisation and Testing Centre to assess the quality and safety of cannabis plants. "We plan to expand the facility to a 360m2 space in the near term. Up to 800 plants will be able to be grown upon that farm "Sasikarn said.

Visitors will be able to observe the new facility from an observation window. They can see how the members of the group grow the plants. Play La Ploen has a Cannabis Learning Centre not far from the cannabis cultivation room that informs visitors to cannabis and hemp.

"Play La Ploen Herbal Community Enterprise is like a one-stop-shop for those wanting to grow cannabis," said Panida Krongsanan, one of the farm's agriculturists. "We went through a lot of trial and error until finding out the best way to grow ganja for medicinal purposes. We are willing to share our knowledge with anyone who is interested because we believe knowledge should be shared "she added.