“The West can teach the East how to get a living, but the East must eventually be asked to show the West how to live.” ~ Tehyi Hsieh.
Ganja. Bong. Kush. Hashish. All terms we have been using in the world of cannabis for years, rarely pausing to consider what their source is, or what they can inform us of the history of the plant we are building our careers and business on. If we spent more time these days reading history books than taking pictures of our food, we might have discovered that the source of all of these terms is the same area of the world, one which has often been more relegated to tourist status than consideration as a major anchor point and potential disruptor to the global cannabis industry.
So…let me introduce you to Southeast Asia. Where the words Ganja and Bong are inscribed on the 2000 year old walls of Wat Pho, where Kush is the mountain range that most of our strains of cannabis made their way along, being conveyed by nomadic tribes ten of thousands of years ago, and where the innate understanding of the plant is vastly different to anything this industry has experienced anywhere else in the world.
If you walk the streets of Bangkok, a sprawling modern metropolis with super car parking at every mall and more video billboards than you can imagine, it’s hard to imagine that in 1970, when it’s streets were jammed with American GI’s on vacation from Vietnam, the tallest building in Bangkok was 12 Stories high. In the ensuing 50 years, the city has grown at a rate that boggles the imagination, and today has a population of 16 million in its metropolitan region.
This is the setting of the birth of the yet-nascent but in my humble opinion, soon ascendant, Asian Cannabis Industry. In my experience over the past years, I have had reasons both professional and personal to spend a significant amount of time in Thailand specifically, and Asia in general. One thing I have learned: I understand nothing.
Therefore, it’s from that point of understanding that I am going to provide you with my utterly worthless, and culturally baseless outlook on this region and its place in the global cannabis industry. (if you’ve spent some time in Asia, you would understand how important the previous sentence is…it’s the “forward looking statements” clause of the East.)
Setting the Scene – what has happened so far
As mentioned above, Cannabis has been part of the medical culture of Thailand and much of Asia for thousands of years. Here in Bangkok, on the walls of Wat Pho, considered the birthplace of Thai Buddhism, there are multiple recipes for traditional medicines using Ganja, or cannabis, as a key ingredient. Treating multiple indications and part of the traditional pharmacopeia to this day, they have remained an active ingredient in the world of traditional medicine, protected from extinction by a loophole in the law and kept under the radar by hiding in plain sight.
As Thailand joined the modern world over the past 70 years, its medical system has also become more westernised and jaded towards traditional treatments, but it never fully eclipsed traditional medicine, which held pride of place among millions of adherents and maintained a level of belief unmatched anywhere in the western world.
A few years ago, in the midst of political stagnation and as they say “it was the silly season”, one political party looked at what was happening abroad (read: Canada) with the booming cannabis industry (read: big ticket IPO’s with big boosts to GDP and extra benefits on the side for those in the know), and decided it might be a good time to bring out old school Thai medicine as a tool for progress (read: and votes).
So as a result, four years ago, driving down the streets of Bangkok, every fourth political sign (and there is A LOT of political signage in election season) was emblazoned with a big beautiful pot leaf. As all the text is in Thai, to the untrained foreign eye this can only scream: Legalisation!!! And be a wacko platform that will not affect the centre. But as I said…we understand nothing. And lacking the language, even less. What they REALLY said was – this is an old school medicine that Thailand has known of for years…are we really gonna let the world lap us on this?
“Thailand’s government decided to do things a different way…birthing what has become one of the most fascinating, compelling and potentially fastest growing markets to emerge in the global cannabis market in the past five years.”
As a result of this news traveling the global cannabis grapevine, an incredible event took place about three and a half years ago. Some Canada-Thailand commerce group arranged for the stalwart leaders of the Canadian industry to come visit in Thailand and talk weed.
In a bizarre twist on the colonialism this region has been lashed with for the past 300 years, a group of middle aged white guys in khakis and tropical shirts (sure, some of them wore suits but the clever ones tried to fit in), sat on a panel and told the groups they met with, including government, industry and academia, that they hold the keys to successful cultivation, extraction and commercialisation of the cannabis plant (please please take a moment to examine the state of publicly traded Canadian cannabis companies to see just how far off base that statement was).
Though polite and courteous and pleasant as a nation, it was all these proud Thais, with their knowledge of cannabis in the history of the own country, and a deeper understanding of the geopolitical ebbs and flows that brought all of these people to this conference room in the first place, could do but laugh the Canadians out of the room.
Instead of adopting ANY of the suggestions of this motley crew, Thailand’s government decided to do things a different way…birthing what has become one of the most fascinating, compelling and potentially fastest growing markets to emerge in the global cannabis market in the past five years.
Cannabis in Asia: It’s old, it’s new, it’s different to anything we have experienced before, because Thailand is truly the one place in the world that has axiomatically adopted the idea of a free market dictating its success…instead of attempting to create endless barriers to entry and restrictive policies based on another axiomatic mistruth, that cannabis is a BAD thing. Here, in Thailand, they have moved past that into a more logical phase: based on what we see in the world, and based on our own history… cannabis is PROBABLY good, let’s give the people the opportunity to figure out where and how it’s best applied.
I have had the privilege and occasion to be here, involved in various levels of engagement, for the entirety of this exciting period, and that journey in and of itself has been a fascinating education on the intersection of business and cultures that has often left me bemused, baffled, admiring and acknowledging that I (an Israeli born into a barely 50 year old culture) am interacting with and viewing power structures, behaviours, and etiquettes that have been so embedded and ingrained into Thai and Asian culture over the past centuries, which have never been written down and cannot be verbalised to a foreigner. The only way to try to understand is to keep on asking questions, to observe, to interact and now, in my case….to report.
I will attempt to break the Thai and Asian industries into digestible pieces which can be reported upon individually, with the intention of building a basic understanding of what lies ahead for this region, a view into potential synergies and points of interaction with the existing global industry, enabling a reader to start tying together the myriad threads which create the tapestry of the Asian Cannabis Story.