Highs and lows of cannabis growers
Chiang Mai uni staff and students suffer long hours and bug attacks
Growing cannabis for medical use in a controlled environment is costly and painstaking although the end result looks certain to be economically rewarding for the country, according to the authorities connected to the project.
The Maejo University in Chiang Mai is one of the biggest authorised centres for growing and cultivating cannabis for the extraction of its oil which is then medically developed into drugs to alleviate conditions associated with serious illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
The plants are grown in four large greenhouses with adjacent allotments set aside for outdoor cannabis farming. Both the plants in the greenhouses and outdoor plots are organically farmed.
However, farming cannabis requires a lot of effort, manpower and money. The university students, who earn a wage for volunteering in their spare time, and staff have found themselves being rostered to work ever longer hours in the greenhouses every evening.
"It's been a very exhausting four months of work. On some nights, the staff are still at it way past midnight," said Arnat Tancho, director of the Maejo Natural Farming Research and Development Centre.
The first cannabis seedling was planted at the university on Oct 1 last year. The greenhouses are currently home to 12,000 cannabis plants with the first harvest taking place last week.
As the harvests began, new crops were being farmed outdoors in the adjacent allotments.
Like most plants, pests have been the cannabis farm's worst enemy and the greenhouses proved not to be impervious to the bugs which slipped in when staff entered and exited. The swarms of pests were attracted to the lights inside.
Access was subsequently restricted to authorised personnel and the doors have to be opened and closed quickly, according to Mr Arnat.
"We found about 1,500 bugs in each greenhouse every night. Staff sat down and picked out the bugs by hand, one by one, until dawn," the director said.
"Some of us burst into tears and said we couldn't stand the job any more," he added.
The saving grace came when the centre obtained microbial insecticides from the Royal Project Foundation. The sprays killed off the bugs overnight and kept new attacks at bay.
"Anyone thinking it is a piece of cake to farm cannabis should think again," he said, explaining that bugs are attracted to the heavily scented cannabis flowers. The oil is extracted from the tips of the flowers and each cannabis plant yields eight florets on average.
Of the 12,000 plants being harvested, around 7,500 are healthy enough for oil extraction. But before the oil is obtained, the flowers are dried first, he said.
Mr Arnat estimated the current harvest will yield about a tonne of dried cannabis flowers and 10 tonnes of the dried trunks, stems and leaves.
Most of the non-flower parts are sent to the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine to be used in traditional medicines. Some are also blended into feed for sick animals.
Mr Arnat said 160 cannabis plants will be kept for producing seeds to grow the next crop.
For the outdoor allotment, 4,700 plants are being farmed organically on two rai of land. The plants represent seven local and overseas varieties. The purpose is to allow cross-breeding in the hope of developing hybrid strains which could yield superior quality oil.
However, indoor farming of cannabis using imported seeds and gardening materials is pricey. The seeds alone cost US$30 (912 baht) each, not to mention the light bulbs installed in the greenhouses which cost up to 400 baht apiece.
The expenses work out at roughly 11,000 baht per square metre or 17.6 million baht per rai.
In terms of the outdoor crop, the centre is attempting to push the costs down by down sourcing locally made farming materials and seeds, according to the director.
If successful, these practices could set an example for when household cannabis farming is legally approved.
Mr Arnat insisted every farming step and material, including soil, must be absolutely chemical-free for cannabis oil production.
Pol Lt Gen Adit Ngamjitsuksri, deputy inspector-general of the Royal Thai Police, said the police have introduced a system of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to protect the farmed cannabis from theft. Every plant is tagged with a chip and an alarm will go off if any are removed from the greenhouse without authorisation.
Meanwhile, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul expressed confidence the medical products from farmed cannabis would earn substantial foreign currency if the plants were promoted as a new cash crop.
Thailand could also emerge as one of the world's centres for cannabis-based medical treatment and products, according to the minister.
"As a politician, it would give me pleasure to be able to turn such aspiration into reality," he said.
Mr Anutin said at this stage, a bill has been drafted to authorise household cannabis farming. The legislation is pending deliberation by the House of the Representatives.