Thailand Becomes First Southeast Asian Country to Legalize Medical Marijuana

Thailand Becomes First Southeast Asian Country to Legalize Medical Marijuana
Credit: Reuters / TPG
What you need to know

Medical cannabis is being legalized in what the Thai government calls a 'New Year's gift' to the people.

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On Dec. 25, Thailand approved cannabis use for both medicinal and research purposes. This is the first time that marijuana has been legalized in Southeast Asia, which is the most strictly controlled region for drugs in the world.

Reuters reported that the National Legislative Assembly of Thailand, appointed by the Thai military government in 2014, set up an extra parliamentary session to handle a rush of bills before the New Year’s holidays and voted to amend the Narcotic Act of 1979. They mentioned that before the 1930s, Thailand had a tradition of using cannabis to relieve pain and fatigue.

In a televised parliamentary session, Somchai Sawangkarn, the 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.”

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Credit: Depositphotos
Medical marijuana: Now legal in Thailand.

While countries from Colombia to Canada have legalized marijuana for medical and even recreational use, the drug remains illegal and taboo in Taiwan and across much of Southeast Asia, where marijuana traffickers in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia can be subject to the death penalty.

The main controversy over the legalization of marijuana in Thailand involves patent applications from foreign companies – if foreign firms were to obtain patent rights, then they would potentially dominate the cannabis market in Thailand, making it more difficult for Thai patients to obtain medicinal marijuana and for Thai scientists to obtain cannabis extracts for research.

The Bangkok Post reported that when the National Legislative Assembly deliberated on the bill, it received overwhelming support with 166 votes to zero in favor, and 13 abstentions. The key aim of the bill is to remove marijuana and kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) from the Type 5 narcotics classification under the Narcotics Act so that they can be used for medicinal and research purposes. However, all activity involving the use of these two drugs will be strictly regulated and will require prior approval from the committee on narcotics control.

In addition, possession of 10 kilograms or more of either of the two drugs, including by licensed institutions, will still be considered possession with the intent to distribute. The law dictates that permission to produce, import, export, hold or distribute the drugs will only be given to state agencies conducting medical research or offering studies on medicine, scientific pharmaceutical research, scientific research and agricultural scientific research.

According to the law, if one possesses cannabis in excess of 10 kilograms, the penalty is between one and 15 years in prison, with a fine of up to 1.5 million baht (US$46,300).

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Credit: Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom
Police from Thailand's Narcotics Control Board pictured in June 2014.

Al Jazeera reported that, according to the recently passed bill, recent research proves that marijuana extract has medicinal benefits, which 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, although cannabis is classified as an illegal drug in Thailand, many patients have used it to treat their diseases.

The report also mentions that public hearings have shown that many Thai people are looking forward to the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in the future. Chokwan Chopaka, a social activist with the Highland Network, a cannabis legalization advocacy group in Thailand, said: “This is the first baby step forward.”

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This article first appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens and can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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