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Medical Cannabis Tourism Rising: Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and Thailand Set to Cash In

medical cannabis tourism
Written by Sarah Friedman

Medical tourism isn’t a new concept. For quite some time people have been making journeys to other places to receive medical benefits unavailable to them in their home countries. It follows suit that cannabis, the new darling – and devil – of the medical world, would be the new fuel for the industry.

In some cases, it was the result of coming from a poor country and needing the medical technology and assistance of a well-developed one. In some cases, it was to combat the sheer cost of a medicine or medical procedure: think uninsured Americans going to Canada or Mexico to get a cancer medication that would bankrupt them in America.

In some cases, it was to get a treatment that wasn’t allowed in the country of residence. Like people in a place where medical cannabis isn’t illegal, going to a place where it is. It is that idea which drives the medical cannabis tourism industry of today, coupled with an actual ‘tourism’ component that has turned the idea of traveling for medical treatment into vacationing while getting your medical treatment.

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How it’s usually done

Nearly every country has cannabis laws in place that regulate who can use cannabis – if anyone – and the reasons under which they can use it. Some don’t allow any use, some allow use for medical needs, some allow use for whatever purpose a person deems necessary, and some don’t really allow it, but have made laws that let people get away with it anyway. One of the factors that permeates through all of these different cannabis climates is that laws permitting use generally apply only to residents of the country.

One of the standard cannabis tourism locations is the Netherlands, where for years it has been okay to sit in coffee shops in Amsterdam and smoke weed. People from all over the world come to do this, even though the legality for foreigners taking advantage of these laws is actually questionable in some places, and often the center for debate. Over time it has remained flexible though, and open to outsiders. My guess is that no matter how much it might not always be preferable, the money that comes in through this cannabis tourism makes it worth the while.

Generally speaking, countries that have any kind of legalized cannabis policy, do so for their own citizens. But as times progress, regulation in different places is opening up to allow for more flexibility, like in the Netherlands, or for countries to open up medical programs that can be accessed legally by non-residents, making for a surge in medical cannabis tourism.

The US Virgin Islands take advantage

Cannabis has been decriminalized in the US Virgin Islands since December 2014. On January 10, 2019, the Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act was signed into place legalizing medical cannabis in the Virgin Islands, which includes policies that allow people who come from other places with legalized cannabis programs to access care in the Virgin Islands for a fee, as well as allowing people from around the globe who are not cannabis patients to access therapy in a Virgin Islands in-patient cannabis program.

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This might not be where it ends as Governor Albert Bryan Jr. has been pushing for an amendment to legalize cannabis altogether since late last year, an extension of the medical cannabis law. The amendment would also expunge prior convictions of anyone who was convicted for having less than one pound of cannabis. The bill, apparently, doesn’t use the standard term of ‘recreational cannabis’, but instead refers to it as ‘non-prescribed marijuana.’

The bill stipulates that this non-prescribed marijuana could be used anywhere on the island, but would be illegal to bring off the island. All of this would be to entice people to come to the island paradise where they could medically or non-medically partake in cannabis as a part of their general stay which would be blurred between treatment and vacation.

Jamaica pushes to be medical cannabis tourism destination

Medicinal marijuana has been legal in Jamaica since 2015. It’s kind of funny to think of places like Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands, homes of the Rastafarian movement that uses cannabis religiously, as having strict cannabis policies at all. However, as most of the world turned anti-cannabis during the early 1900’s, so did these locations, barring the plant that many saw as a part of their religion.

In Jamaica, cannabis was outlawed via the Ganga act in 1913. It wasn’t until 2015 that the legislation was officially updated in the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2015. When it was decriminalized, the following points were put in place, with an obvious eye on the future:

  • No criminal record for up to 2 ounces
  • A person can grow up to 5 plants
  • Rastafari practitioners may use cannabis for religious purposes
  • Tourists are eligible for permits to buy cannabis if they hold a prescription for medical marijuana

This last point is interesting, and globally inclusive. The point before that opens the door to many other things. Take into consideration places like Coral Cove, a health and wellness resort in Westmoreland on Jamaica’s west coast, an area that has practically become designated for such health and wellness type locations.

Coral Cove happens to have an onsite greenhouse where they grow some really nice bud, and they do so in conjunction with the Bobo Shanti Rastafari sect that lives on the island who have a religious exemption for growing cannabis, given to them by the Jamaican government through the decriminalization update to the Ganga law. Since it’s covered by law for religious use, smoking is protected at the resort, and even those without existing prescriptions for medical cannabis, are fully permitted to partake. As you can probably imagine, this is most likely not the only time this exemption has been used in this way.

Whether backhandedly using religious law, or simply providing a medical treatment for those who already have a prescription, Jamaica is certainly positioning itself to be a place for people to go for their much-desired weed treatments.

Thailand aims efforts at cannabis tourism

Cannabis has long been a part of Thai traditional culture, but it was criminalized regardless in 1934. After a stringent – and losing – war on drugs, Thailand took a 180º turn and decided to look into legalization for medical use in 2016. However, unlike other countries that established medical programs with just their own citizens in mind, Thailand is already thinking globally.

Thailand’s First Prescriptions For Medical Cannabis Within One Month

Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan was quoted as saying “We would like to provide medical tour packages, such as detox, Thai massage and other wellness courses that use marijuana substances.” The idea would be to incorporate it into packages that are oriented toward traditional Thai medicine and massage, and would be geared mostly toward Americans and Europeans who are already on board with medical cannabis.

On Monday April 27th of this year, the first two clinics with full-time hours opened in Thailand dispensing cannabis oil. They joined a number of part-time clinics already in operation for the same purpose. The cannabis for these operations comes from six different facilities in the country which are monitored by the Public Health Ministry.

Thailand is interesting because of how quickly it has turned around its policy, and how open it is with what it wants to do. Thailand seems to have identified the growing cannabis industry as the next direction to point itself in, and has very quickly been updating formal policies, and general perceptions to work toward dominating in that area. In fact, developing a medical cannabis industry was cited as a specific priority of Thailand’s government, and a major point of the Bhumjaithai party which is one of the bigger parties in Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha’s coalition. It is being eyed as a great economic opportunity by providing an industry in which citizens of the country can work and earn money.

The future of medical cannabis tourism

More and more countries are legalizing cannabis for medical use, whether it’s to smoke a bud, eat a gummy, or vape CBD (cannabidiol) oil – a constituent cannabinoid of the cannabis plant that unlike THC does not have psychoactive properties. While this can make needing to go to a foreign location for treatment less necessary, it should be remembered that not all countries are forward thinking with their cannabis laws, or the laws they have don’t provide for the necessary treatments.

And maybe even more importantly, who wouldn’t want to do their medical cannabis therapy (or recreational cannabis therapy!) in a beautiful resort-like location where health and wellness meet luxury vacation? As the medicinal uses of marijuana grow, the idea of destination therapy has been growing with it, with more and more countries writing regulation to open their cannabis laws to the global public at large.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.