Marijuana is a drug. It needs proper control. But hemp is not pot. It is a valuable crop for diverse industries, and it needs policy support.
Yet the government insists on subjecting cannabis and hemp to the same legal controls, simply because their names are almost the same in the Thai language. The misunderstanding speaks volumes about ignorance on the topic among Thai policymakers.
In Thai, cannabis is referred to as gancha, while the word ganchong refers to hemp. The similarity is understandable as they look similar to the untrained eye. While both are cultivars of Cannabis sativa, hemp lacks the psychoactive agents which cannabis is known for.
But our policymakers do not know this basic fact. Up until earlier this year, anyone caught in the possession of cannabis and hemp faced imprisonment and fines. Even traditional medicine practitioners were forced to leave out cannabis extracts from their age-old recipes. Hmong tribespeople in the North regularly faced legal harassment for growing hemp, which they use to make their traditional garments.
Finally, on Feb 9, the government moved to decriminalise cannabis and hemp, citing their economic and medical potential. While the move received praise, without any serious controls on public access and dosage standards in food products, chaos is likely to follow.
Since cannabis was decriminalised, doctors have expressed alarm over the increasing number of patients who have sought medical attention after accidentally ingesting pot-laced products. Many parents are also shocked to see how easily their children can access cannabis.
The outcry prompted the Public Health Ministry to issue an order on June 14 to ban cannabis smoking in ways which disturb public order. On Aug 25, officials issued another order prohibiting cannabis in food products, asking the public to wait for various laws to first be approved.
On Sept 14, however, MPs rejected the bill, asking the government to come back with a new bill with better measures to protect the public.
Since the cannabis bill is back to square one, lawmakers should leave hemp out of the new bill altogether.
Why? It would be mind-boggling to apply the same controls to hemp, as hemp is not a drug, and it has never been used as such. While cannabis and hemp might resemble each other when they are immature, the differences are easy to spot later on. Cannabis plants are shorter, often less than 2 metres in height, while hemp can be as tall as 6m. Hemp leaves are wider and have a green-yellow tinge, which set them apart from cannabis. Most importantly, cannabis can contain 5–20% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gives it its psychoactive properties. But hemp barely contains any THC -- with less than 0.3% of THC by weight, hemp can't be used as a recreational drug.
In Thailand, hemp is traditionally used to spin fibres to make clothes. It is an integral part of Hmong life -- newborn babies are welcomed with a hemp cloth, their adults wear clothes made with hemp fibres throughout their lives, and their deceased are dressed in hemp garments and shoes. The Hmong don't use hemp to get high.
In other countries, hemp isn't only used to make clothes. Hemp fibres are used to make paper, canvas, ropes, even biodegradable plastic. Noted for being naturally pest-resistant and its versatility, hemp is often hailed as the material of the future. Hemp grows fast, which means fewer forests will need to be cleared to grow the material to make paper, for instance.
As such, restricting the use of hemp won't only make it difficult for Hmong people to continue their traditions, it will also make it difficult for Thailand to catch up with the world in developing hemp as a cash crop.
Move Forward Party MP Natthapol Suebwongsak recently raised his concerns over the lack of basic understanding of cannabis and hemp. He said that had the House passed the bill on cannabis and hemp control, Hmong farmers would be required to get state permission and pay 50,000 baht to grow hemp or face legal punishment.
Hemp plays a key role in Hmong culture and restricting them from growing and using hemp is ethnic discrimination. Hemp is also a sustainable cash crop, so farmers should be able to grow it without state control.
It is likely that the bill will return to the House with even stricter measures on both hemp and cannabis, despite the significant economic potential it can offer. For the sake of the economy and environment, the House committee working on the cannabis control bill should leave hemp out of it altogether and focus on the psychoactive cultivars.
The government must keep abreast of global trends in hemp farming and production. It must ensure that local communities benefit from hemp cultivation, not just big businesses.
If the government insists on categorising hemp as a psychoactive drug, Thailand will miss out on the benefits hemp has to offer. It won't be because of our lack of resources, but because of official ignorance.