This month, Thailand legalized the cultivation and use of cannabis, reversing a tough approach that included long prison sentences and even the death penalty for drug offences.
BBC Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head explains the reasons for the drastic change.
Twenty-one years ago, I had one of the most significant experiences of my career as a journalist.
We were invited to watch and film the execution of five prisoners, including four convicted drug traffickers, by firing squad in Bangkwan Prison in Bangkok.
I will never forget the expression on the faces of these men as they were led in shackles to the pavilion where the executions were taking place.
These executions were part of the “war on drugs” led by the then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, which later turned into the murder of hundreds of people suspected of drug trafficking.
Thaksin’s campaign was popular.
Thais worried about the damaging effects on their communities of narcotics such as methamphetamines, and they were willing to ignore the shocking human rights abuses that accompanied the violent crackdown.
Other countries in the region followed the same punitive approach, notably the Philippines after President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016.
Singapore and Malaysia have imposed the death penalty for drug trafficking for decades.
Tourists traveling to Southeast Asia have long been warned of the heavy penalties they face if caught in possession of even a small amount of marijuana.
The most liberal approach to marijuana in the world
It is therefore difficult to imagine that what we have seen in recent weeks is actually happening in Thailand.
Cafes and stalls openly sell all kinds of cannabis products or display jars full of high-potency marijuana buds.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, architect of the new law, which makes Thailand the most liberal marijuana regime in the world, was seen enjoying marijuana curries, to the applause of the farmers who hope it will bring them new sources of income.
Laughing Thai grannies were seen tasting bright green cannabis drinks and queuing to get one of the millions of free marijuana plants handed out by the government.
A festival celebrating the new law offered people marijuana popsicles.
The new law appears to give Thailand what is perhaps the most liberal approach to marijuana in the world.
For now, people can grow and consume as much of this plant as they want, although there are some limitations on how they can market and sell it.
“One thing is clear.
You can no longer go to jail in Thailand just for using cannabis,” said Tom Kruesopon, a pioneering entrepreneur who helped persuade the government to change its approach.
“You can go to jail for other acts, such as smoking in public, as a public nuisance, or creating and selling a cannabis product for which you have not obtained approval from the Food and Drug Administration. .
See: The smell and smoke of cannabis is a public nuisance in Thailand
But Thailand is the first country in the world where you can’t go to jail for growing or using this plant.”
“It’s like a dream for us.
We never thought we would get this far in Thailand,” said Rattapon Sanrak, who began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana after experiencing its medical benefits while studying in the United States.
Two grandparents, his father and then his mother, died of cancer.
Rushing home from the United States to care for his mother, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to use cannabis products to ease her pain, and found it difficult to access substances. then illegal.
See also: 4 cannabis strains from Thailand could help fight cancer
Between politics and business
How to explain this spectacular reversal in a country still ruled by conservative soldiers who seem reluctant to liberalize drug legislation?
Politics has something to do with it.
Mr. Anutin has made the legalization of marijuana his party’s flagship policy for the 2019 election.
The party’s stronghold is in Thailand’s impoverished rural northeast, and the policy has appealed to farmers struggling to make a living from growing rice and sugar, and in need of a new cash crop.
So he could tell the cheering crowds when he announced the new law in his political stronghold of Buriram earlier this month that he had delivered on his promises.
He believes in the medical benefits of legalization, which he hopes will allow poorer Thais to cultivate their own treatments, rather than having to pay for expensive chemical drugs.
It is also a matter of business.
Mr Kruesopon estimates that the marijuana trade will generate $10 billion in its first three years, but it could earn much more from cannabis tourism, where people come to Thailand specifically for therapies and treatments using marijuana extracts.
See also: Thailand wants to launch a Sandbox for the recreational use of cannabis
He opened the first clinic in Bangkok that focuses solely on this type of treatment.
Some of Thailand’s biggest companies are already looking to cash in on the marijuana windfall.
By liberalizing the law so quickly and so completely, the government hopes to outpace neighboring countries, many of which may be reluctant to follow Thailand’s path.
Lighten the prisons
But there is a third factor driving the new marijuana regime, a rethinking of the hardline approach to drug use, which began seven years ago, surprisingly when Thailand was ruled by a military junta.
The country has some of the most overcrowded prisons in the world, and three-quarters of the inmates there are for drug offences, often minor ones.
This situation has not only sparked international criticism of the poor conditions prisoners have to live in, but has also cost the government money to maintain them.
It was a military minister of justice, General Paiboon Kumchaya, who announced in 2016 that the war on drugs had failed and that another, less punitive method was needed to deal with drug use and abuse. narcotics.
See also: Thailand legalizes Kratom to fight hard drugs
When Mr. Anutin presented his marijuana policy, with all its tantalizing economic benefits, he found he was pushing a relatively open door, though he says it still took a lot of pushing to get there. .
Another result of the law change is that more than 4,000 people charged with cannabis offenses are now released from prison.
See: Thailand Releases Detainees Arrested for Cannabis Trafficking and Will Return Confiscated Drugs
However, the government may not have been prepared for the excitement that cannabis in all its forms has been generating in Thailand since the new law was passed.
The plant is appearing everywhere: on ice cream, in classic Thai dishes and in new smoothie recipes.
One company even sells chicken meat from birds that have been fed cannabis.
See: Chicken farmers replace antibiotics with cannabis in Thailand
The new law makes just about anything cannabis-related legal.
The government is currently developing additional regulations regarding its use.
Officially, his position is that the law only allows the use of cannabis for medical and non-recreational purposes, but it is difficult to see how he will enforce this distinction.
“We all know from studying other markets that recreational use is where the money is,” said Chidchanok Chitchob, a self-proclaimed marijuana enthusiast whose father, a powerful political figure in Buriram , was one of the first to jump on the Thai marijuana bandwagon.
“So I think that should be a good step towards that, if we really think of this culture as an economic culture.”
She is experimenting with different strains of the plant to help local farmers grow the right kinds of plants for the region.
Mr. Kruesopon says he has no problem with further regulation.
He advocates the sale of marijuana only from licensed sellers, on prescription, and never to anyone under the age of 18.
“You shouldn’t think too much about all this,” he adds.
“Whatever you use for cigarettes, use the same for cannabis.
There are already laws to control the consumption of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, just use the same laws.”
This is an unusually bold move by the Thai government in a new world.
The rest of the region will be watching to see if it pays off.