Thailand Legalizes Medicinal Cannabis
The Thai government has approved a bill to legalize medicinal cannabis, according to Agence France-Presse. This milestone decision will make Thailand the first Southeast Asian country to allow its citizens legal, medicinal access to the drug.
The decision has ended weeks of speculation on cannabis’ future in Thailand.
Only two weeks ago, the chairman of the country’s standing committee of public health, Jet Sirathraanon, submitted a draft bill calling on the current military junta, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), to make the medicinal use of cannabis legal.
"I'm doing this because it's an opportunity for Thai people," Sirathraanon told Agence France-Presse in October. "Thailand has the best marijuana in the world."
Now that the bill has been implemented, thousands of Thailand citizens could soon gain access to cannabis-based medicine. The country will also become the first in Asia to properly enter into the international cannabis market, which has been estimated to reach US$55.8 billion by 2025.
The long path to legalization
Only 15 years ago, a Thai government legalizing medicinal cannabis would have been unthinkable.
Back then, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was just beginning his infamous war on drugs.
Reacting harshly to the widespread production and use of methamphetamine (or ya ba, as it is known in Thailand), drug dealers were labeled enemies of the state, and after only three months of action, 2,500 people had been sentenced to death for drug-related offenses.
The state had created a zero tolerance on drugs and the public supported it. At the time, one public opinion poll showed support of 75%.
But fast forward 13 years and the country’s outlook on drugs had changed dramatically.
Through a decade of mass incarceration, Thailand’s prisons were seeing a major population crisis, prompting then Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya to admit that the country’s war on drugs had failed.
“The world has lost the war on drugs, not only Thailand,” Paiboon told Reuters in 2016. “We have clear numbers that drug use has increased over the past three years. Another indicator is there are more prisoners… I want to de-classify methamphetamine but Thailand is not ready yet.”
But while methamphetamine would remain off the menu, efforts were building to legalize cannabis.
For years, possession or transportation of up to 10 kg of cannabis in Thailand was punishable by a maximum of 5 years of imprisonment. Any amount above 10 kg could have resulted in 15 years in jail.
But April of this year, a research team from Rangsit University created a cannabis extract spray for cancer patients after receiving special permission from Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board. Following on from that successful trial, one of the team, Dr. Arthit Uraitat, called on Thailand’s military leaders to legalize the substance for medical use.
“Be brave. Let us use medical marijuana legally regardless of the method,” he said in a press conference, “Those who have cancer, they cannot wait. They need the help now, so I think we need to take every shortcut possible.”
And it seems their plea has worked.
Speaking to The Associated Press on the latest bill, lawmaker Somchai Sawangkarn gave a progressive view on the matter. “If we let it be used recreationally, our society is not ready yet, so I want to do this first step first—the issue of making medicine. From allowing the making of medicine, maybe in six months or a year’s time, if society is ready, it could become a food supplement. ... And eventually, that could lead us to its recreational use.”
Thailand’s decision to legalize medicinal cannabis use is a monumental one and it sets a big precedent for neighboring Asian countries with hard-line stances on drug use. But if the country’s lawmakers are as progressive as Sawangkarn, medicinal legalization could just be the first step on the road for full recreational use.
Cannabis in Asia: a rapidly changing view
Just this month, a Malaysian man was given the death sentence for selling cannabis oil to the ill.
It was a case indicative of the harsh stance many South East Asian countries have on drug use. But fortunately for this man and many others in his situation, it appears the region’s traditional draconian drug attitudes are changing.
Within days, tens of thousands of Malaysians had signed a petition in his support. The case soon garnered enough attention that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was adding his concerns and asked for the sentence to be reviewed. Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian MP with the governing coalition, claimed the death sentence was a "miscarriage of justice".
The Malaysian government then announced that it would abolish the death penalty for 32 offenses, including drug charges. And MP Izzah Anwar revealed in late October that she was drafting legislation to decriminalization medicinal marijuana as well.
This rapid turnaround in attitude led many to wonder if Malaysia would be the first Asian country to legalize medicinal cannabis. And while Thailand may have beaten its neighbor to the first place, the race for silver is still on for many Asian countries.
This summer, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would begin cultivating cannabis for medicinal export. In South Korea, where citizens are even banned from consuming recreational and medicinal cannabis in countries where it is legal, such as Canada, the government is considering amending drug laws to allow CBD-infused products to be imported. And in China and Japan, where cannabis remains illegal, research into the plant's potential benefits has been but officially sanctioned along with limited cultivation.
“You see countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan also becoming interested in looking at medical cannabis in part because they see how much money the rest of the world’s companies and countries are getting out of it,” explains Martin Jelsma, director of the drug policy program at Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based think tank. Speaking to South China Morning Post, the commentator also remarked on the likelihood of legalization in China, “Of course it’s more difficult to monitor China – [but there may be] interest in medical cannabis as they already have a huge hemp industry.”
Edit Note: Thailand's junta-appointed parliament voted to approve the bill for medical cannabis use on December 25th, 2018.