In a regional first, Thailand's legislature has agreed to amend the country's Narcotic Act of 1979 to allow the licensed medical use of cannabis, as well as kratom, a locally grown plant traditionally used as a stimulant and painkiller. The legislation passed its final reading on Tuesday, at the National Legislative Assembly, by a vote of 166-0 with 13 abstentions.
Somchai Sawangkarn, chairman of the drafting committee, said: “This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people.” Sawangkarn said that the amendment would come into effect once it’s published in the Royal Gazette, the country’s public journal.
The new legislation will legalize the production, import, export, possession and use of cannabis and kratom products for medical purposes. Purveyors, producers and researchers will need licenses to handle the drugs, while end-users will need prescriptions.
Thailand is the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medical marijuana although recreational marijuana remains illegal in the country. The region has some of the world’s toughest penalties for drug law violations, with marijuana traffickers potentially facing the death penalty in nearby countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Recently neighboring Malaysia said that it could consider legalizing medical marijuana, while New Zealand's government earlier this month enacted a law liberalizing the medical use of cannabis, which had previously been tightly restricted. In response to the legalization discussions by its regional neighbors, Singapore’s government issued a stern warning earlier this year that it would duly punish any citizen or permanent resident found to have consumed marijuana abroad. Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau reminded people that it conducts enforcement checks at immigration checkpoints and that “any Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident found to have abused controlled drugs overseas would be treated as if [they] had abused drugs in Singapore.”
Thailand has a long tradition of marijuana use for medical relief. The drug was traditionally used to relieve pain and fatigue until the 1930s when it was banned. Recent Public hearings showed that legalization measure has the overwhelming support of the Thai public.
The bill introducing the legislative changes had noted that recent studies have shown that cannabis extract has medicinal benefits, which has prompted "many countries around the world to ease their laws by enacting legal amendments to allow their citizens to legally use kratom and marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes".
It added that despite being classified as an illegal drug, many patients have used cannabis to treat their diseases.
In Thailand the main controversy with legalization has involved patent requests by foreign firms that could allow them to dominate the market, making it harder for Thai patients to access medicines and for Thai researchers to access cannabis extracts.
Panther Puapongpan, Dean of the Rangsit Institute of Integrative Medicine and Anti-Aging was quoted as saying: "We're going to demand that the government revoke all these requests before the law takes effect,"
Some said they hoped Tuesday's approval would pave the way for legalization for recreational use. Chokwan Chopaka, an activist with Highland Network, a cannabis legalization advocacy group in Thailand said: “This is the first baby step forward.”
Analysts have said that if Thailand were to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana it could be a boom to the economy that would be worth billions of dollars in revenue each year. Thailand among both medical practitioners and stoners has a reputation for producing some of the best marijuana in the world and advertising and marketing experts are already discussing brand names and special attributes that will make their weed stand out from the others.