Thailand’s Medical Cannabis Program: Progress And Predictions For The Future

Last December Thailand shocked the world by becoming the first Southeast Asian nation to legalize medical cannabis.  As a key player in a region notorious for its harsh drug laws and staunch prohibition, the country that originally seemed like an unlikely candidate to break the status quo has charged ahead with a number of breakthroughs in its new medical marijuana program.

Here are a few of the developments since last year’s announcement, and where the program may be heading.

Home And Commercial Cultivation

The latest move has been a change in the law to allow for home cultivation.  Back in September, lawmakers in Thailand’s coalition government proposed a measure allowing its citizens to grow up to six plants in their home – but only for medical use.

“The principle is for medical use, you can have it at home for ailments, but not smoke it on the street,” lawmaker Supachai Jaisamut told Reuters in September.

Earlier last month, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul commented further on the plan, confirming that the government is taking steps to make home growth and easier access to medical cannabis a reality.

“We are in the process of changing laws to allow the medical use of marijuana freely.  We have high confidence that marijuana will be among the major agricultural products for Thai households” Charnvirakul said.  The proposed changes to the law will not only allow Thai’s to cultivate their own plants, but also to sell those plants to the government for its medical cannabis program.

Government Investment

Since legalization last December, the Thai government has already begun investing in cannabis production, and at Maejo University in Chiang Mai, a massive 3,040-square meter facility has been built with 12,000 new cannabis plants being cultivated as of September.

In addition, the university has developed a new strain, which features equal parts THC and CBD.  Called “Issara 01”, coming from the Thai word for “freedom”, it was specifically requested by the government for its cannabinoid content.  The move is significant, as it makes Thailand the first Asian country to develop its own strain of cannabis.

While medical marijuana was legalized last December, availability of products to patients kicked off in August. The government started the program by shipping bottles of CBD oil to 12 different hospitals throughout the country.

Last month Thailand’s first medical cannabis clinic opened in the central province of Ang Thong.  The country’s Public Health Ministry Secretary, Dr. Prapon Tangsrikertikul, was in attendance at the opening ceremony, and said that “this clinic will provide treatment to patients who have one of two diseases – multiple sclerosis and the final stage of cancer.”.

Another 31 clinics are expected to open in the near future.

Full Legalization On The Horizon?

With medical cannabis legal and a program underway in Thailand, many have speculated about the possibility of legalizing recreational cannabis as well.

There are a number of voices in the government who have pushed for such reforms.  During the election campaign of 2019, the Bhumjaithai Party was particularly vocal about full-scale legalization.  Led by Anutin Charnvirakul (now Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister for the current coalition government), the party even went as far as to plaster its campaign with images of pot leaves, with party members insisting that they wouldn’t join any coalition which did not support full legalization.

Since joining the current coalition government however, the party has walked back a number of its pledges.  In what may very well have been a compromise move, Charnvirakul has backed off his push for recreational marijuana, while moving ahead with the home cultivation reforms (the move to allow Thai’s to grow cannabis at home and sell it to the government was one of the Bhumjaithai Party’s original campaign proposals).

While the compromise may have been necessary in a coalition government (particularly one stocked with conservative military generals), the move has been criticized by advocates in Thailand.  Chokwan Kitty Chopaka of the Highland Network has been particularly critical, accusing Charnvirakul of backpedaling on his promises to the Thai people.  The Highland Network is one of the groups within Thailand advocating for reforms, and is pushing for both legal medical and recreational marijuana.

While the issue of recreational cannabis could potentially be brought up again in the future, it may take time and a change of government before the idea has a leg to stand on.

Widespread Enthusiasm

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the changes over the last year is how quickly attitudes towards cannabis are turning around.

While they may not be as harsh countries like Singapore, drug laws in Thailand have historically been notoriously strict – simple possession of under 20 grams could land you up to five years in prison.

It should also be pointed out that this is the same country that unleashed a vicious drug war less than 20 years ago.  The crackdown, led by then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, resulted in nearly 2800 extrajudicial killings in the first three months alone.  The scale of the violence was so bad that the UN Human Rights Committee raised the issue in 2005. UN officials sent urgent messages to the Thai government about what they described as an “extraordinarily large number of killings”.

Given its harsh legacy of prohibition, last week’s scene in Bangkok will no doubt come as a shock to those familiar with Thailand’s past.  Government officials appeared at a medical cannabis promotion event, featuring the distribution of free “Dr. Ganja” dolls, the campaign’s marijuana leaf mascot.  The government has also announced the creation of a website devoted to cannabis education in the country.  What’s even more shocking is the fact that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was not only in attendance at the event, but posed for pictures with the mascot. The Prime Minister even went as far as to use a number of the products on camera.

Thailands embracing medical cannabis is an encouraging sign. The move is a welcome change for a country with such a dark recent history.