Ganja -- a future cash crop?
After medicinal cannabis became legal last year, farmers in Buri Ram are working hand-in-hand with the government to scale up production in nurseries and farms
After retiring as a school teacher two years ago, Wilai Kampilool, now 62, spends his time farming. His house is located in Ban Sok Nak, in tambon Hin Lek Fai in Buri Ram's Khu Muang district. The village has recently become a destination for those who want to learn about or see ganja (marijuana) plants.
"I never thought that one day I would get involved in growing ganja. Since a young age, I've been told that it was a narcotic. However, the more I learned about its health benefits, the more interested I've become in growing the plant. I told myself 'why not', " said Wilai.
"I fully support the government in legalising ganja so that we can plant and use it for curing sicknesses. Using ganja as a medical herb is tapping into our old wisdom and something we should preserve," he said.
Ban Sok Nak is a small village located about 30km away from Buri Ram and about 420km northeast of Bangkok. Most of the villagers here are farmers and they earn a living growing sugarcane, farming crickets or raising silkworms for silk woven clothes.
Growing ganja has provided new hope for the villagers to diversify their income. Since the government legalised the use of cannabis for medicinal and research purposes in Feb 2019, ganja has become a highly-regarded cash crop. The Kasikorn Research Centre forecasts that the market value of medical cannabis in Thailand will reach anywhere between 3.6 billion to 7.2 billion baht this year.
To further promote cannabis cultivation among households, Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul launched the Non Malai model in Ban Sok Nak on Feb 11. He handed over cannabis seeds to the Non Malai Thai Herb Community Enterprise and this marked the first step to allow households to legally grow six ganja plants in their yards.
The movement is also pushing to transform Buri Ram's image into the "City Of Ganja" and also the location where the ganja expo is expected to be scheduled annually. In the meantime, ganja clinics are gradually opening. More than 15 community enterprises are farming cannabis plants to supply dry flowers to local hospitals to produce cannabis oil.
Flowers and seeds used to produce cannabis oil. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Moreover, market demand for ganja in the food and cosmetic industry is also booming. After the government pulled ganja leaves, stalks, stumps and roots from the narcotic list on Dec 15 last year, some local restaurants and resorts are now offering food and drinks with a mix of ganja leaves (the flowers and seeds are still in the type-5 narcotic list). Prototypes of health products are still under development and soon, spa and wellness centres in Buri Ram will offer these with ganja extract.
SIX PLANTS PER HOUSEHOLD
At present, individuals are not allowed to farm cannabis and hemp unless they register themselves as a community enterprise. Each group must have at least seven members and must have contact with a local hospital, including small-scale Tambon Health Promotion Hospitals (THPH).
In Ban Sok Nak, the Non Malai Thai Herb Community Enterprise has partnered with Non Malai THPH.
Wilai is among the first seven people who are legally allowed to grow six marijuana plants in his garden. Every morning, he waters the plants and checks the stems, leaves and soil. He gently flips up some leaves and when he finds yellow spots caused by spider mites, he carefully removes the tiny bugs by hand. Sometimes, he uses natural pesticides like neem oil to spray on sick leaves.
"Chemicals are not allowed since our group grows the plant for medical purposes. We know that our plants have to be safe from hazardous chemicals," he said.
Traditional cannabis formulas and cannabis oil from Khu Muang Hospital. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
The plants must be grown in a secure environment and within 10m of a home. The construction of the nursery where the plant grows is simple -- it is made of bamboo poles with green scaffolding mesh and a barbed-wire fence. The entrance door must have a lock and two signboards, one which must state that the site is for the production of a type-5 narcotic while the other must show the name and the address of the owner. The Buri Ram Agricultural Office also records how many ganja plots there are in its system by using GPS coordinates.
Health volunteers known as aor sor mor visit the nurseries daily and check the plant's health. If they find dry or fallen leaves, they will collect them and measure the weight. They report the data daily to the hospital, which then submits the report to the Department of Food and Drug Administration. Each week, local police also pay a visit to check the safety of the site. Wilai has a CCTV camera to record every movement inside the nursery.
From the village roadside, the ganja garden plot looks like a typical nursery and easy to break into. Fortunately, there has been no attempt so far.
"The project is a joint venture among people in our community. Everyone knows who is growing ganja in our village," said Riam Seetha, 43, chief of public health volunteers.
"There is no need to break the rule," she said.
Above Ganja cookies are available at the Ganja and Hemp Expo in Buri Ram. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Riam also grows six ganja plants in her garden. She believes it is another form of making merit.
"Although I had to invest about 5,000 baht for the nursery and buy water for the plants, I am glad to do so because my ganja will be used to cure people's sickness," she said.
Within the next couple of months, the plants will mature and the ganja flowers will be harvested and sold to Tambon Health Promotion Hospital of Non Malai. After harvest, the grower will be able to use or sell leaves, stalks, stumps and roots. Riam plans to use leaves to enhance the taste of food and snacks for sale under the name of the community enterprise. The food that will be mixed with ganja leaves includes deep-fried crickets (jingreed lanla), chilly dip (nam phrik susa) and sugar cane juice.
"I look forward to harvest. I don't know how much I can earn but I am confident that it will be fruitful," she said.
MEDICAL GRADE FARM
About 18km north of Ban Sok Nak, ganja plants are cultivated in an indoor farm in a garden zone of Play La Ploen Boutique Resort and Adventure Camp on Road No 2074 in Khu Muang district.
The facility used to be a tulip nursery but now it is an air-conditioned room with a humidity control system. The property's owner, Pornthip Asadathorn, has offered the nursery to Play La Ploen Herbal Community Enterprise (PHC) for farming medical-grade cannabis.
"I provide the facility to PHC for free because I want to support people living near our property to have extra income," she said.
Before growing ganja plants, 30 PHC members grew herbs and vegetables in an organic farm in the resort for six years. The vegetables were supplied to the resort's kitchen while the herbs were sent to Khu Muang hospital. When the hospital opened a Medical Cannabis Clinic almost two years ago, they searched for local cannabis suppliers and the hospital chose to work with PHC.
Right The Charlotte Angel variety is grown by Play La Ploen Herbal Community Enterprise. Karnjana Karnjanatawe
PHC has partnered with the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) to start its medical cannabis cultivation project. During the first year, the community grew four varieties of ganja plants, including Hang Krarok and Tanow Sri, which belong to the Thai varieties and two imported varieties -- Sensi and Charlotte Angle -- whose seeds they received from the GPO. The group later chose to grow only the Charlotte Angel variety from the Netherlands. "The Charlotte Angel variety has high CBD output. It is the compound that Khu Muang Hospital needs to cure patients who have epilepsy, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease," she said.
Based on the requirements of the hospital, the community enterprise grows about 90 ganja plants per crop. Last year, the group supplied its first cultivation of 6kg of ganja flowers to the hospital for free, said Sasikarn Lorjilopart, the chairwoman of PHC.
After the first harvest, the leftovers had to be destroyed but the group converted it for use as fertiliser.
The community enterprise started to earn from its second crop after Khu Muang Hospital bought the dry flowers for 40,000 baht per kilogramme. After the second harvest, Khu Muang allowed the farmer group to take advantage of leaves, roots and stems. Today, the group partners with universities to produce healthcare products under the PHC brand. They have sample prototype products of toner, sunscreen, soap, toothpaste and herbal drinks. The products will soon be available for sale in Arokaya Wellness Sala in Play La Ploen Boutique Resort and Adventure Camp.
Recently, PHC has also worked with the Characterisation and Testing Centre of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) to test the quality and safety of cannabis plants. "Soon we will expand the facility to a 360m² room. This farm will be able to grow up to 800 plants," said Sasikarn.
The new facility will also have an observation window to facilitate visitors. They can see how the group grow the plants. Not far from the cannabis cultivation room, Play La Ploen has a Cannabis Learning Centre that provides knowledge about cannabis and hemp to general visitors.
"Play La Ploen Herbal Community Enterprise is like a one-stop-shop for those who want to grow cannabis," said Panida Krongsanan, an agriculturist of the farm. "We have had many trial and errors until we found the best solution for growing ganja for medicinal purposes. We are willing to provide the knowledge to those who are interested as we believe knowledge is for sharing," she added.