Thailand legalizes opioid-type herb spurs for online sales rush

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(Bloomberg) – Entrepreneur Sittichai Komam wasted no time after Thailand decriminalized kratom, a coffee-like plant native to Southeast Asia in late August that can give users a mild high. Within hours, Sittichai was selling freshly picked kratom leaves from his neighborhood in southern Thailand on Facebook to local consumers.

Popular in the United States, where advocates say it’s an alternative to opioids but critics say it’s a dangerous drug, kratom is the latest herb the Thai government has legalized for production. Although producers can only sell domestically at this time, Thailand is considering allowing exports, potentially allowing local dealers to become suppliers to the United States, the most lucrative market in the world.

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“Many older villagers kept kratom trees to harvest and eat its leaves,” said Sittichai, 31. “After it became legal, I started collecting and buying the leaves to help them earn extra income. “

Already, the national response has been overwhelming: a week after Sittichai launched, it stopped advertising because Thai orders were coming in faster than villagers could harvest the crop.

Still, Thai consumers have plenty of options on social media platforms like Facebook or online outlets like Shopee, backed by Sea Ltd., where hundreds of new posts offer stacks of fresh leaves for around 100 baht ( $ 3.09) per 100 grams.

Thailand removed kratom from the narcotics list on August 24, and on September 8, lawmakers passed a bill allowing kratom imports and exports. These measures followed the relaxation of the rules against cannabis and hemp.

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Behind Indonesia

Thailand lags behind Indonesia as a producer of the coffee-like shrub, which has leaves that advocates say can kill pain, boost energy, and treat depression and high blood pressure. . Thailand had banned its cultivation, consumption or sale, and those found guilty of possessing part of the plant faced heavy fines and long prison terms.

Thailand’s local kratom market could be worth 600 million baht by next year, based on assumptions that the sector will be smaller than the hemp industry, according to Chaiwat Sowcharoensuk, analyst at Krungsri Research. Once Thailand announces rules to regulate trade and big companies join the green rush, the export market could be significantly larger, he said.

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“Decriminalization will not only benefit farmers, but will create a whole new upstream to downstream supply chain and likely attract operators looking to turn it into beverages, health supplements and cosmetics,” Chaiwat said.

American market

The biggest potential export market is the United States, where online resellers now sell Indonesian-sourced kratom powder and other products to consumers looking for opioid alternatives. The US market is estimated at over $ 1 billion per year, with 11 to 15 million users, according to the American Kratom Association, which based its assessment on imports from Indonesia.

“We expect the legalization of kratom in Thailand to lead to greater acceptance of this plant and, in turn, reasonable regulations for growing and processing in countries where kratom is grown,” said Jenn Lauder, Director of Marketing and Advocacy at Kraken. Kratom, an Oregon-based vendor who sells local variety products in Indonesia and Thailand.

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“This means companies in the United States could have better control over their supply chains, including seed-to-sale tracking and quality assurance standards that start at the source, and plant-based raw materials.” more consistent, ”she added.

The timing of liberalization is awkward. The World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Addiction, which assesses the potential harm of psychoactive substances, will begin what it calls a kratom pre-examination next month, the first step in a process that could lead to tighter controls.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers about kratom. “There are serious concerns about the safety of kratom, the risk it may pose to public health and its potential for abuse,” Judy McMeekin, FDA associate commissioner of regulatory affairs, said in a May statement. .

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Lawyers say the criticism is unfair. “Kratom can benefit society far more than harm and if properly regulated it can help with certain addictions, help those with acute and chronic pain and provide those trapped in the cycle of addiction. opioids a safe path away from them, “said Mac Haddow, senior public policy researcher at the American Kratom Association.

In Thailand, decriminalization is getting great reviews from people like Phatcharaphon Thupaphong, a 47-year-old caddy who chews kratom for a boost of energy while working out in the tropical sun.

“Before it became legal, I had to hide the leaves under my car seat and they would shrivel up from the heat by the time I got home,” she said. “Now I don’t have to worry anymore. “

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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