Medical cannabis moving ahead in Thailand, but who stands to benefit?

The cultivation, distribution, possession and use of kratom will be decriminalised in certain communities
Chokwan Kitty Chopaka (Highland Network)
Tuesday, May 14, 2019

thailand marijuana awakening25th December of 2018 was a historical day for cannabis enthusiasts in Thailand. The (interim) Parliament voted, 166-to-0, to pass new amendments to the country’s Narcotics Act. These legislative changes will allow for the cultivation, importation/exportation, distribution, possession and use of cannabis for medical and research purposes in the Kingdom. The move is regarded by many as a big leap forward, especially as the country still retains a criminal penalty (one year of imprisonment) for the simple use of illicit drugs, including cannabis.

While the drug law is being reformed in relation to cannabis, people who use drugs remain highly discriminated against and stigmatised in Thailand. Indeed, the consumption of drugs deemed illicit for non-medical purposes, including cannabis, remains a criminal offence. And this against the progressive realisation, by jurisdictions worlwide and the UN system itself, that criminalising people who use drugs is an obstacle to realisation of health and human rights objectives.

The penalty for its "unauthorised" use will still be in place, and random, surprise public urine tests will still be carried out. This is far from being a safe, effective and evidence-based response to drug use, especially for those that need to use cannabis for medical purposes but may not qualify for a government-issued license or permit to do so given the strict requirements that are likely to be put in place. 

The implementation of the legal provisions on medical cannabis, which took effect on 18 February 2019, has triggered debate on several issues including who might be permitted to cultivate and produce cannabis, and under what conditions people may be allowed to consume cannabis for medical purposes.

While the government is still in the process of fleshing out the implementation of these legislative changes, an amnesty for people who already use, cultivate and possess cannabis for medical purposes has been provided for. People who use cannabis for these purposes will have to declare it by 19 May 2019. During this period, State organisations, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, practicioners of traditional Thai medicine and certified folk healers, as well as private higher-education institutions that do research or teach medicine/pharmacology, may qualify for a permit for access.

Legally-registered community and social enterprises, as well as agricultural cooperatives that work with or under the supervision of approved state organisations or private schools, international transport services, Thais who travel overseas with medical marijuana and others who have been authorised under ministerial regulations, may also qualify.

Those who sought amnesty and do not qualify for permission will need to surrender the cannabis they have in their possession.

In April 2019, officers from the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) raided the premises of a non-profit organisation, known as the Khaokwan Foundation, and arrested one of its employees. The Foundation had been cultivating cannabis and providing it for medical use for several years. There was a strong backlash against the government’s actions, including from non-governmental organistions advocating on biodiversity, agricultural and consumer rights issues, particularly since the amnesty period had yet to expire. There were also accusations from the community that the government had been acting on pressure from pharmaceutical companies, who are likely to want to see highly restrictive regulations to ensure their relative control of the cannabis market. The ONCB subsequently released the employee and announced that it will not take legal action against Khaokwan Foundation as it still has time to apply for amnesty.

Overall, this approach to studying the effect of a drug on the community is almost unheard of in Thailand and, as a cannabis legalisation advocate, I feel that this is a step in the right direction. It is comforting to see that at least there is a search for answers to better understand and manage drugs.

In relation to another substance, kratom, the ONCB is now permitted to operate specifically zoned areas which allow for kratom cultivation and use. These areas will permit research to improve understanding of consumption patterns and cultivation methods, and its impacts on the community. This measure will mean that the cultivation, distribution, possession and use of kratom will be decriminalised in certain communities.