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Thai Ganja- Revitalizing Traditional Medicinal Marijuana Knowledge in Thailand

Less than a year ago Thailand legalized medicinal use of marijuana, which had been illegal on the books since 1934.1  However this law was not strongly enforced until the 1990's.  When I first went to Thailand in 1986 as an exchange student more than a few noodle vendors still used “ganja” (the Thai word for marijuana now also adopted into English) as one of the herbs in the soup, continuing a tradition of many generations to use herbs with both flavor-enhancing and medicinal properties in their recipes.   Anyone a bit familiar with Thai cuisine will have tried “Tom Yam” soup with its unique flavor from lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and galanga, all herbs with both culinary and medicinal properties.  A bowl of “Tom Yam” is most welcome with a stuffed nose, letting these herbs do their magic to open the sinuses.  Ganja too was once common as a herb in soups and curries.

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Before this legal change I became more interested in Thai cannabis when visiting relatives in Oregon where I got into a conversation with an older man who was involved in the business who said that while a lot had been done to “improve” the quality of marijuana, he felt that none of the current varieties were as good as the “Thai stick” that he could get in New York City as a young man.   He felt that breeding efforts had been one dimensional and there had been a loss in this process.   I also learned that most seed now sold in the international market is hybrid and many old cultivars are hard to find.

male marijuana buds are favorites for bees

Returning to Thailand where I am part of a network that practices agroforestry and self-reliance with a very strong knowledge of Thai herbs and medicine, I asked my colleagues more about how ganja was grown and the genetics.  One elder in his 70's shared about how he grew and sold ganja to American troops on R+R in Thailand.   He had a small place 8 kilometers away from Sattahip, the main US airbase not far from the present tourist destination Pattaya.  For $10 USD he provided a good quantity of his own grown bud (enough for 5 or 6 soldiers and himself), and his own bamboo bongs.    He said that many small farmers grew their own cannabis and saved their own seed.   I wondered if these heirloom marijuana varieties were still around in Thailand today.

 male marijuana buds are favorites for bees

To catch up more on the movement I visited Pongaraya Butchantha an accredited Thai traditional doctor and friend.   He invited me to join one of his short courses on medical marijuana self-reliance.   He started by explaining about the long history of marijuana use in Thailand and how dried and powdered cannabis was regularly added to soups and curries working as a good preventative medicine for diabetes, high blood pressure, and other common modern ailments.   He also explained about the tradition and importance of bongs.  Bong is one English word of Thai origin.  In Thai, a bong is a bamboo container and bongs can serve for other purposes like storing liquids.   Until I became familiar with bamboo and saw bamboo bongs, I was ignorant that the glass water pipes found in head shops were just imitating bamboo's natural design.   Pongaraya, known as Dr. Pong, explained that traditionally everyone would have their own bong of the correct size (and correct dose) for the user.  He also explained how a number of the active ingredients in cannabis change properties, becoming medicinal, with oxidation which is most easily done by heating and then exposing to water.   So the bong is an amazing piece of appropriate technology which can be easily harvested directly from nature and that as a water pipe, filters, cools, and oxidizes the smoke rendering it more medicinal.  
male marijuana buds are favorites for bees

Talking with another leader in Thai medicine, Dr. Supaporn Pitiporn of Abhaibhubejhr Hospital2, she explained a bit of the long history of use of marijuana in Thai medicine and how marijuana is often used (like most old Thai traditional medicine recipes) in conjunction with other herbs.3  Herbs can increase beneficial properties, prevent negative side effects, and increase efficacy- helping to get the medicine where it is most needed.   Dr. Pong said that currently there are 16 medicines on the national registry that include marijuana as an ingredient.   He also explained about the different view and focus of modern medicine verses traditional medicine, including Thai traditional medicine and how this can also be observed with most of the medical marijuana research.  Modern medicine normally focuses on isolating both active ingredients and ailments.   Thus we see isolated CBD commonly sold for medicinal purposes.   Thai traditional medicine sees the herb as being of holistic benefit with the many active ingredients working synergistically.  In addition, it considers symptoms to be merely indicators of imbalances and thus treatment should not only address symptoms but work to resolve the underlying imbalance.  Once the imbalance is resolved, the human body's own amazing capacity to heal itself does most of the work.

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It is with this approach that Dr. Pong and others have seen very impressive results from cannabis extract alone.   Dr. Pong explains how important sleep is according to Thai traditional medicine, and that we actually need 3 types of sleep.   The first type of sleep, called resting sleep, which provides rest to the body, is normal with any sleep.   Dream sleep is also important for our mental and emotional well-being, helping to address both mental and emotional stress.   The 3rd type of sleep, deep sleep, works to reset the body's balance and promote healing; unfortunately, most of us have little if any regular deep sleep.   While practices that help the body and mind to find greater stillness such as yoga and meditation can help us to achieve deep sleep, fast paced lifestyles and machines that continuously alert us and demand our attention work against this.  Cannabis, Dr. Pong explains, has similar compounds to those produced by our own brain to promote deep sleep, and many of his patients have found that the correct dose of cannabis extract before bed, promotes a healthy deep sleep that helps the body rebalance and heal itself as well as leaving one well-refreshed in the morning.  In the end it seems so simple.  Most of us are getting very little if any deep sleep.  A bit of cannabis extract before bed can promote a healthy deep sleep.   With good proper sleep including deep sleep our body can reset its balance and heal itself.  Thus many patients of Pong have greatly improved from a variety of illnesses by applying this medicine in this way.
male marijuana buds are favorites for bees

While presently, most of the cannabis extract is coming from the common local strain of ganja known as “squirrel tail,” which grown in the quite ideal natural conditions found in much of Thailand can yield an extract with as much as 1% CBD and 35% THC4, a number in the movement here including Dr. Pongaraya and Dr. Supaporn are looking to find and develop cannabis varieties with optimal medicinal properties.   Dr. Pong said that most of the marijuana breeding and selection work has focused on improving the genetics for recreational use, but there is a need and opportunity to do much more.   With many 1000s of years of history in Asia, there is a lot of native diversity in the wild and selected cannabis populations, which, according to my herbal doctor friends, means diversity in terms of active ingredients and medicinal properties.

male marijuana buds are favorites for bees

While this legal status is very new, it is clear that coming from a very long local genetic history and practice of use of cannabis in Thai traditional medicine that the potential for medical marijuana in Thailand is great both for its own people and in what it may share with the world.
* Warning for travelers: recreational use of marijuana in Thailand is still fully illegal, with harsh penalties, and medical use of marijuana is legally controlled without any easy means for a foreign visitor to get a legal prescription or such.
Consult a doctor familiar with medical marijuana use to learn about proper use and dosage before using marijuana medicinally as this is a powerful medicine and used improperly it can have harmful effects.
Michael B. Commons, Wanakaset Network, Thailand  
If interested in learning about medical marijuana self-reliance with Dr. Pong, he tries to offer a short course monthly at his home and garden in Chachoengsao, Thailand.  
As he is not fully fluent in English to easily respond, please contact the author for support. 

1. https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/thailands-green-rush/
2. “Cannabis clinic immediately reaches limit after opening” 26 June 2019 http://www.nationmultimedia.com/detail/national/30371813
3. Personal interview with Dr. Supaporn Pitiporn May 2019
4. From international laboratory testing results