From watermelon to weed: Thai farmers regret switching to cannabis as prices fall

Dr Banchob Promsa, leader of the Marijuana Community Enterprise Network in Nakhon Phanom, said that cannabis farmers have yet to turn a profit from growing the crop. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

NAKHON PHANOM, Apr 30 (The Straits Times/ANN): When Thailand legalised cannabis for medical use in June 2022, thousands rushed to stake their claim, including small-time farmer Tukta Sinnin.

The 43-year-old pumped in nearly 500,000 baht (S$19,500) to grow more than 400 cannabis plants on her land in Nakhon Phanom, a north-east province by the Mekong River.

However, after nearly a year, Mrs Tukta has not sold any of her cannabis crop, let alone turned a profit.

“I’m very disappointed. We lost money. Nobody wants to buy our crop,” she told The Straits Times. “It’s not a cash crop.”

With the local medical marijuana market projected to be worth about 43 billion baht by 2025, the move to delist the cannabis plant as a narcotic was intended to not just boost national income, but also to help small- and medium-sized businesses and rural farmers earn extra income.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, whose Bhumjaithai Party had championed the legalisation of medical cannabis, had even said he wanted to turn Nakhon Phanom into “Cannabis City” to boost its economy and tourism appeal.

Sold on the potential earnings, farmers such as Mrs Tukta diverted land and resources from their rice or rubber plantations to start outdoor cannabis fields. A handful even invested in indoor greenhouses, said Dr Banchob Promsa, leader of the Cannabis Community Enterprise Network in Nakhon Phanom.

“But when the crop was ready, we couldn’t sell it,” he said.

Dr Banchob, who used to head a provincial hospital, was an early adopter of cannabis farming in Nakhon Phanom.

He obtained approval to grow the plant shortly after Thailand in 2019 first allowed the limited use of cannabis for medical purposes.

Today, he leads a collective of about 200 farmers.

In 2022, they signed an agreement with a third-party business, which promised the farmers would earn 5,000 baht to 30,000 baht per kilogram of dried cannabis flowers, depending on the quality.

However, the third party has not been able to find any buyers willing to match that price, said Dr Banchob, who added that the wholesale price of dried flowers has dropped drastically.

Before June 2022, dried cannabis buds fetched about 5,000 baht to 7,500 baht per kilogram. But the legal change led to more than 1.38 million growers entering the industry, and as a result of oversupply and price-cutting, market prices are now around 500 baht to 2,000 baht.

“We couldn’t make a profit. So we decided to wait until prices get better,” said Dr Banchob, who has about 36kg of dried cannabis plants vacuum-sealed and stored in his shed. These can be kept for six months.

The lure of the local cannabis industry is not fading only for farmers.

Business has dropped by more than 80 per cent at the RG 420 Cannabis Store located in the tourist hot spot of Khaosan Road in Bangkok since its opening in 2022, according to co-owner Ong-ard Panyachatiraksa.

He said: “With so many cannabis shops along the street, it might look like the demand is high, but it’s not.”

Thousands of weed dispensaries, as well as cannabis-related businesses and products, emerged following the relaxation of rules.

But the initial cannabis boom, which saw long lines forming outside these stores, has dissipated, especially after legal flip-flopping by the authorities.

From unclear definitions of what constitutes medical use to the same-day issuing and rescinding of arrest orders against cannabis dispensaries, a lack of clarity has affected businesses.

“Even tourists who were interested in trying it have become wary about breaking the law,” said Mr Ong-ard.

While major corporations such as Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group and other international companies have invested in cannabis consumer products, agriculture and pharmaceuticals, the lack of clear legislation to govern the cultivation and use of cannabis is undermining the industry’s potential growth.

“Big industry is in a dilemma. There’s a lot of discussion among overseas clients about whether it is a good time to enter Thailand’s cannabis industry, considering that the law is not yet stable,” said Dr Atthachai Homhuan, director of regulatory affairs at law and consultancy firm Tilleke and Gibbins.

Furthermore, demand for medical cannabis products overseas is not growing as rapidly as expected, said Dr Atthachai.

“Overseas demand isn’t high, as cannabis in various forms remains largely illegal in the region. And domestic demand is not enough (to counter oversupply).”

Prospects for Thailand’s cannabis industry now hinge on the country’s upcoming general election on May 14, amid societal concerns over minors’ easy access to weed and criticism of the legal loopholes that allow for recreational use, said Dr Atthachai.

The next government is expected to pass the long-awaited Cannabis and Hemp Bill to plug such loopholes, but there is also a possibility it could send cannabis back to the narcotics list.

It will take some time for small-scale cannabis farmers who are not seeing the promised windfall to turn a profit, said Dr Atthachai, adding that they should focus on other produce for more sustainable earnings.

Nakhon Phanom farmer Panadda Bupasiri is doing just that. When cannabis planting season comes again in September, the 40-year-old has decided not to devote as much time and land she previously spent on growing the plant.

She said: “We will go back to growing watermelon.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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Thailand , Cannabis Farmers , Poor Sales


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