Hemp's potential goes up in smoke
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Hemp's potential goes up in smoke

Since the legalisation of marijuana, or ganja, in 2022, the total lack of regulatory control has sparked a public outcry, prompting the Srettha administration to criminalise ganja again. The move to make hemp illegal, too, is a major mistake.

Although hemp, or ganchong in Thai, belongs to the same species of cannabis as ganja, it is non-psychoactive. In short, it is not a drug. Hemp is a plant in the botanical class of Cannabis sativa cultivars explicitly grown for industrial and consumable use. It is legal in some countries -- including India, where hemp has been added to cosmetic products and foods -- not to mention organic fabric textiles.

In Thailand, hemp has long been used in the traditional textiles of the Hmong highlanders, both for their cultural rites from birth to death and for the markets. Meanwhile, hemp has become valuable for various industrial uses, ranging from lightweight bulletproof vests to paper production, thermal insulation, bioplastics and construction.

Yet the Public Health Ministry wants to include the non-psychoactive hemp in the narcotics list along with ganja. This policy will affect the use of hemp in traditional textiles and potential economic benefits which Thailand could draw from the use of hemp in industrial applications.

Ganja was fully decriminalised after the Bhumjaithai Party's policy drive in June 2022 under the previous government, making Thailand the first country to do so in Asia. A boom in the weed industry without proper regulations, however, has caused grave public concerns about health risks and youth addiction.

The party tried to placate public concern by sponsoring a bill to regulate cannabis, but it failed to receive support from some other parties such as Pheu Thai, the Democrats and the Move Forward Party.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin promised to reinstate ganja on the narcotics list. Following his directive on May 8, 2024, the Public Health Ministry issued a new regulation that will come into effect on Jan 1, 2025. It is now open for input online. The deadline is June 25.

According to the draft regulation, the flowers of ganja and ganchong, as well as any materials containing more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), will be classified as narcotics. Under the new rule, the cultivation, import, export or consumption of ganja will be strictly controlled and permitted only for medical use, research, and other specified purposes, not recreation.

It should be noted that the prime minister's directive is only about ganja. In the rationale for the regulation, the Public Health Ministry also mentions only concerns about ganja. There are no reasons at all to include hemp in the list of narcotics.

Public confusion over these two types of cannabis stems from similarities in their names in Thai and their appearance as young plants. When fully grown, however, ganja is a small bush under two metres tall with small, dark green leaves that have only five to seven slits. Hemp, on the other hand, grows taller than two metres with spreading branches. Its big leaves are yellowish-green and have seven to eleven slits.

Importantly, hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, making it non-psychoactive. Globally, plants with THC levels below 0.3% are not considered addictive because they cannot induce a high or affect the nervous system.

Hemp is valuable primarily for its fibres and is never consumed. Legal cultivation of hemp is also widespread worldwide due to the diverse applications of its fibres.

In contrast, some core parts of marijuana contain 5-20% THC, affecting the nervous system to produce a high, and are considered addictive. This is why many countries prohibit the cultivation and use of marijuana, classifying it as a narcotic drug.

Interestingly, the ministerial order to regulate the use of ganja in 2022 did not include hemp, demonstrating the Public Health authorities' understanding of the difference between ganja and ganchong. It is, therefore, an unpleasant surprise that they have now decided to list both as narcotics.

This change of tune causes grave worry among Hmong communities. Since hemp is not a drug, any law concerning narcotics should not include hemp at all, they insist.

Aware of the threat to their culture and traditions, the Hmong community in Tak's Phop Phra district has petitioned the government to review this decision because it will affect their cultural heritage and livelihoods.

Instead of making hemp illegal, the government should follow Royal efforts to improve the quality and design of hemp textile products, they insisted.

The government should heed their calls. Rather than proceeding with this top-down and poorly thought-out decision, it should recognise hemp's unique benefits and cultural significance and halt efforts to criminalise it, allowing the full potential of this versatile plant to be unlocked.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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