Big Business Eyes Marijuana-Infused Food as Thai General Liberalizes

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As a teenager more than four decades ago, Tan Passakornnatee recalls getting “hooked” on the beef noodle soup at a store near his home in eastern Thailand. Only later did he learn that the broth was laced with a special ingredient -- marijuana.

“I felt like a nicotine addict quitting cigarettes because my mind was always on the noodles,” said Tan, now 61 and chairman of beverage producer Ichitan Group Pcl. “And then one day the owners showed me their secret.” These days, Tan is preparing to capitalize on Thailand’s 2019 rules which legalized the use of marijuana for health and research purposes. Tan expects the government to allow it in packaged food in the third quarter, after which Ichitan will launch new cannabis-infused beverages.

Big Business Eyes Marijuana-Infused Food as Thai General Liberalizes

The Bangkok-based beverage maker’s plans offer a look at how big businesses are hoping to profit from some of the liberal initiatives introduced by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, which could reshape Thailand’s once conservative society. Besides the changes on marijuana, the government helmed by the 67-year-old former army general -- who led a coup in 2014 -- has introduced a proposal in parliament to recognize same-sex partnerships, which could eventually help promote Thailand as a friendly destination for the LGBT community. Earlier this year, Prayuth said he would mull the legalization of casinos.

While many of the initiatives are in early stages, the shifts show how Prayuth has increasingly sought to cast his administration as business friendly. Tourism, which generates about a fifth of annual gross domestic product, has been obliterated by the pandemic, leaving millions without jobs. His government now touts cannabis as Thailand’s economic crop and research firm Prohibition Partners estimates the industry could reach $661 million by 2024.

“All the big businesses will be looking to invest, no one would pass on the opportunity,” Tan said of the newly burgeoning marijuana industry. “The key is who will be the first in the market and who can capture the biggest share.”

Prayuth, who was sent questions on his policies, declined to answer through an adviser.

Young Protestors

Big Business Eyes Marijuana-Infused Food as Thai General Liberalizes

Prayuth has overseen other changes on the social front, with the legislature legalizing some abortions for the first time. Yet despite his apparent attempts at a more progressive slant, his government’s agenda hasn’t impressed human rights groups or young protesters who have taken to the streets, saying Prayuth’s rule is illegitimate and only serves to protect the wealthy. After the 2014 coup, Prayuth led the junta until a national election in 2019 and then retained power in the poll that opponents called rigged. The military establishment has rejected those accusations.

Thailand’s status has been downgraded to “not free” from “partly free” in an annual ranking by Freedom House, with the Washington-based organization pointing to the government’s crackdown on youth-led protests. While Prayuth’s government has tried to cast itself as more liberal with initiatives on issues like hemp and same-sex marriage, it has used other regulations in ways that aren’t consistent with liberal values such as for the censorship of information or to crack down on dissidents, said Pavida Pananond, professor of international business at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Big conglomerates are more welcoming of Prayuth’s liberal proposals with the push on medical marijuana having the most immediate impact. The changes on same sex partnerships could take a while to pay off with the bill stuck in parliament and global travel largely stalled due to the pandemic. And so far the government has offered no updates on when exactly Thailand might actually act on casinos.

Big Business Eyes Marijuana-Infused Food as Thai General Liberalizes

Happy Tuna

The more relaxed rules on marijuana went through with little social opposition, possibly because Thailand has a long history of using the plant. On March 10, conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Foods Pcl said that it expects to add hemp products to a vast lineup that includes animal feed, poultry shrimp and ready-to-eat meals.

Seafood producer Thai Union Group, which owns the Chicken of the Sea, Red Lobster and John West brands, has said it’s studying the use of cannabis to make “Happy Tuna,” though it has no concrete plans yet since cannabis still isn’t allowed in packaged foods. Canned fruit and vegetable processor Malee Group Pcl is funding a cannabis research center at Khon Kaen University.

Liquor-and-beer giant Thai Beverage Pcl’s restaurant and consumer-drinks arm, Oishi Group Pcl, said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg that it’s following developments and waiting on regulation clarity. ThaiBev is controlled by the nation’s wealthiest person.

“We want to see the cannabis business become a new income source for farmers and industrialists,” said Anutin Charnvirakul, who serves as both deputy premier and public health minister. “Our target is to fully liberalize the plant.” While recreational use of the plant remains illegal, Thailand has joined other nations around the world in legalizing medical marijuana and allowed parts of the plant to be used in food and cosmetics.

Big Business Eyes Marijuana-Infused Food as Thai General Liberalizes

Putting the same kind of heft behind same-sex unions is harder in a country where 95% of the population are Therevada Buddhists. Many followers consider homosexuality punishment for past deeds or actions in previous lives, according to a report by the United Nations Development Program. A bill that would allow same-sex partnerships is stalled in parliament because critics have said it doesn’t go far enough.

Still, it could go through as soon as this year, helping the image of the country within the LGBT tourist community, particularly when global travel resumes. Openness on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, could eventually draw the so-called pink dollar, worth about $6.5 billion to Thailand’s tourism industry, investment firm LGBT Capital estimated before the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Although the Tourism Board has actively courted gay tourism, reports have shown that LGBT groups face regular discrimination.” according to travel website Queer in the World, which publishes guides to 200 cities.

Casino Business

Separately, Prayuth said earlier this year that he would consider legalizing gambling in Thailand after clusters of infections were found mid-December with ties to underground casinos. The premier conceded the country has a long history of illegal gaming and issuing licenses could help contain the coronavirus, according to Taweesilp Witsanuyotin, a spokesman for the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration.

Big Business Eyes Marijuana-Infused Food as Thai General Liberalizes

While the legalization of gambling could provide another possible lifeline for the nation’s ailing tourism industry, there are still people in Thai society who are opposed to the idea. Since January, there have been no government updates on the possibility of casinos, even as some groups have voiced support.

Australia-listed casino operator Donaco International Ltd., which runs the Star Vegas Resort and Club on the Cambodia side of the border with Thailand, has said it doesn’t expect a change in policy anytime soon.

Legalizing casinos would help redirect money going to nearby countries back to Thailand, Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, leader of the Thai Civilized Party, said last August. He also advocated for Thais to be allowed to operate gambling websites, which could generate about 6 billion baht of annual tax revenue.

“Since Thailand currently has insufficient income from tourism and exports, the government should consider legalizing what is illegal and bringing the tax into the country,” Mongkolkit said. “This should be useful for the whole country.”

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