Riding the green wave

Only two weeks after decriminalising cannabis, Thailand is experiencing a green rush. Since June 9, when the legalisation of marijuana for home and commercial use took effect, almost 1 million people registered to grow it with food and drug officials, while more than 40 million have checked out the registration platform. There's a growing public interest in the cash crop -- though some farmers remain doubtful -- and it is paving the way for "cannabis journalism".

Legalisation is not new in some parts of the world. In the wake of legalising recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2012, Ricardo Baca, a veteran journalist, launched The Cannabist, an outlet dedicated to the coverage of marijuana, in late 2013. In an article, he said his editors at The Denver Post asked him to start the project. In fact, their coverage of weed dates back to medical legalisation in 2000. I tried to check the website, but it is not available in this region.

While a cannabis press does not exist here, media has been covering the topic since the pre-dawn of legalisation. At that time, cannabis was still a drug under the Narcotic Act 1979. But in 2018, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to approve the use of medical marijuana. It was not until the narcotic board announced the removal of marijuana containing less than 0.2% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from its drug list early this year that cannabis, or ganja in the local lingo, received more coverage in the mass media.

Some have provided amateur readers with a scientific understanding of the plant, especially the differences between marijuana and hemp, and their qualities. Some have mentioned its cultural functions in everything from cuisine to art. Story after story has poured from everywhere. I've even read a review of a luxury spa offering cannabis treatments. Published months before legalisation, they did not explore controversial issues including legal loopholes.

But the unlocking of home and commercial cannabis is setting off an explosion of stories about its health impact on traditional and social media. As soon as legalisation took effect, doctors and netizens expressed concern about the potential of unchecked use. A few days later, cases of those who were admitted to hospitals after using marijuana came to light, prompting the government to issue regulations while a bill on cannabis and hemp is still in the pipeline.

On the other hand, the long-planned decriminalisation of cannabis for poverty relief has apparently come to fruition. Some reporters have painted rosy pictures of pioneering entrepreneurs who are weathering the storm until they realise the potential of this cash crop. I came across a report with the headline that read "Make 1 million baht from cannabis". In an interview, a manager went into financial detail, which is necessary for those who are not sure whether they should explore the uncharted territory.

"It takes a single plant four-to-five months to grow. Each can offer a product of 1kg, which can be sold for 13,000 baht. A total of 72 plants can be grown in a 6m by 12m greenhouse, which can generate an income of over 900,000 baht. It can be grown for two seasons per year," he said.

Other reporters have done a good job in tackling issues in a balanced manner. BBC Thai has covered cannabis legalisation since its early days. In 2018, it reported a debate over whether cannabis is a wicked plant or an alternative herb. Following decriminalisation, it published an interview with Chidchanok Chidchob, a veteran politician's daughter who is cultivating marijuana in Buri Ram. Like others, she said it is not easy because it requires capital and knowledge.

Growing public interest in cannabis will increase demand for reporters who have a nose for green news. Since nobody knows where the emerging field is going, they will have to explain and predict trends. Also, they will have to simplify confusing rules and complex terms. At the same time, they will have to grapple with the powers that be. Like other industries, journalists must hold themselves accountable if they commit offences, but unfortunately at their own expense.

Professional media are facing a growing decline in press freedom, whether it is by big businesses or politicians. Two recent cases after decriminalisation will have a chilling effect on further criticism of the cannabis policy and hamper the search for truth. Supachai Jaisamut of the Bhum-jaithai Party, which touted the cannabis campaign in the previous election, said it is taking legal action against a news presenter after he accused his party's brainchild of having a negative influence on teenagers.

In another instance, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul clarified with the governor that a man who died after consuming marijuana did not die because of the drug, but heart failure. However, an independent autopsy is needed to pinpoint the real cause of his death. How can we find out the truth and place trust in it when the public health minister and the campaigner for cannabis are the same people?

The green field is on the horizon. Reporters are jumping on the marijuana bandwagon. The budding verdant farm presents untold opportunities and challenges, but they must not get high on it and forsake journalistic ethics.

Thana Boonlert is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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