Three years ago, BK interviewed the team behind Highland, a project advocating for the legalization of marijuana. Since then, they’ve opened a cafe in Lad Phrao, got involved with legal cannabis as a community enterprise, and continued to push for further liberalization of the market. We reconnected with Highland’s Rattapon “Guide” Sanrak to brush up on the current situation with cannabis.

What progress has been made since we last spoke to Highland?

The momentum is building. People can now use marijuana for medical purposes, although its use is limited by government control. Cannabis oil [cannabidiol, or CBD], for example, isn’t readily accessible. You have to get permission to use it from hospitals, and according to current regulations, hospitals only allow it to be used to treat four major diseases: chemotherapy-induced nausea, multiple sclerosis (MS), demyelinating disease, and epilepsy.

Is it harder for normal people (i.e., those without connections) to obtain legal permission to grow it? 

Forming a community enterprise means you need to cooperate with the government. Generally, people like us who don’t have connections with the government or large hospitals find it extremely difficult to get the license to grow marijuana. The other sticking point is that a community enterprise can’t really sell marijuana. Before the government legalized selling cannabis leaves, community enterprises were almost like charities, where they dedicated their produce to medical research for free. Now, even if you are allowed to sell the leaves, you need to grow it on a large scale to make ends meet.

Will the cannabis industry be monopolized, like so many other industries in Thailand have been?

It’s more than obvious that it will be monopolized by the big players. Right now, [legal cannabis] is still controversial, which explains the tight rules and restrictions in place. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not, but the current regulations only facilitate certain groups while shunning others. It isn’t that you can kickstart a weed plantation with passion or knowledge alone. You really need to have connections to do that.

Cannabis is legal for medical use and you can grow it. So why are people still getting arrested?

Since you’re not allowed to sell the bud or flower as a community enterprise, people have gone underground to sell it. Currently, there are two markets for that. First we have those that grow it for medicinal purposes (think cannabis oil). The other is for recreation, where people can sell 1kg of weed for around B300-400,000, although it’s illegal. In this economic downturn, it’s understandable that people will risk growing it even if the chances of getting arrested are high.

Do you think Thailand will ever legalize recreational marijuana?

It might happen sooner than you think. When I started the Highland project in 2013, most people thought legalized cannabis or medical marijuana in Thailand were non-starters. But it’s a global megatrend now. There’s also growing demand from the public. Two years ago, when the [member of the ruling coalition] Bhumjaithai Party proposed legalizing medical marijuana, public interest boomed. If someone were to propose something even more progressive with the right timing, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine it happening. Plus, the government is probably running out of new sources for tax revenues, so marijuana could compensate for that.

Thailand isn’t friendly to the alcohol industry. What makes you think it will support marijuana?

In Thailand, alcoholic drinks are opposed by two major groups: the older generations who believe it to be inherently evil and religious organizations, which I think hold large authority here. But marijuana holds a unique position in the public debate. In the past, older people were generally against it. Since information regarding its medical properties became more readily available, they’ve realized that the drug is not as harmful as they thought. My family used to oppose it, but now they’re asking me for cannabis oil. Some temples not only encourage the use of CBD, they even provide it for free. Since it can be used for healing and is not against their religious teachings, many temples actually endorse the use of marijuana as well.

Marijuana has become part of the greater democracy movement. Why is that?

It’s quite similar to the craft beer and LGBTQ+ rights movements in Thailand. There’s an intersection of interests that people share: freedom and rights. We believe it’s your right to access marijuana just like any other medicine. It’s no more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol. Smoking weed [either for medicinal or recreational purposes] should not be a crime.

What does the future hold for Highland Cafe?

Although our cafe in Lad Phrao is currently closed, we are planning to launch our new projects like Highland Farm where we will grow hemp for CBD products. We also planned to host the Marijuana Expo this year, but it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to do that. Good news is we are developing a series of instructional courses for anyone who’s planning to grow marijuana and hemp. We hope that it will foster awareness and equip you with the right knowledge to profit in the future.
Images courtesy of Highland