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Just in Time for the New Year: Medical Marijuana

Marijuana or cannabis, most commonly referred to as weed and pot, is often associated with the unruly use of drugs. Yet, how many recognise the use of marijuana for medical purposes? We take a closer look into how marijuana is incorporated into medical practice and the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise the use of the drug to treat specific illnesses.

by Lim Wan Er

You may have first heard of the drug marijuana (also known as weed or pot) through crime reports on drug abuse, or if you were hanging out with the wrong group of friends. Make no mistake, we are not advocating the use of recreational marijuana, although there is a rising debate as to whether the drug should be legalised as the marijuana plant contains useful chemicals that can treat a spectrum of illnesses.8 As of 2018, medical marijuana was pronounced legal in the District of Columbia and 33 states – including Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington, to name a few. We have not heard any confirmed news about legalising medical marijuana in Southeast Asia, at least up till now.7

On 25 December 2018, Thailand announced it would be the first country in Asia to wholly legalise the production and cultivation of the marijuana crop, in addition to using it for medical purposes.4 The news may come as a surprise for many, as this is the first time a drug has been legalised in a region with some of the world’s most rigorous drug laws.2 For all we know, neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia may follow Thailand’s footsteps in the future as well, although the drug is still regarded as illegal and taboo across Asia today. Surely, there will be conflicting opinions due to the current penalties including prison sentences and capital punishment for possession and trafficking of drugs in most Asian countries.1

The recent approval in Thailand comes after South Korea became the first East-Asian country to legalise medical marijuana in November 2018, although usage is granted on a case-by-case basis. Even in Singapore where possession of the drug means a death penalty, the city is doing research to unlock the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. India and the Philippines are also in discussions to legalise the medical marijuana market. Nonetheless, we will first focus on the important role Thailand has to play after legalising medical marijuana.

With the news of Thailand’s involvement in medical marijuana, many firms in the U.S. and Canada are contemplating to enlist the country for production and exportation of the drug to their various states, due to the advantageous climate for growing the crop and its potential to become a low-cost hub. Tyler Anthony, senior vice president at Electrum Partners, mentioned that there will be a “rush to produce” as much of the drug as possible and a “global shortage” is impending. Most firms dealing with the drug are looking for cheaper alternatives to producing marijuana and Thailand is an exceptional option, which would bring in a lot of probable revenue for the country.4

Somchai Sawngkarn, the lawmaker who headed the drafting committee in charge of the legislation said that the legalisation of medical marijuana is a “New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people”.3


Recreational vs Medical Use

It may be stating the obvious, but there should be a definitive line drawn between recreational and medical marijuana. Both uses the same plant, though the latter is used for treatments. The marijuana plant contains over 100 chemicals called cannabinoids, and each one has a distinctive effect on the human body. Two main cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant are Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The ‘high’ feeling after smoking or consuming marijuana is attributed to THC.7 CBD is associated to its anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties which are used in treatments to reduce chronic pain, muscle spasms, and epilepsy. CBD-dominant strains have little or no THC, lesser intoxicating properties, making them the ‘marijuana without the high’ and less controversial as a medical drug.

As increasingly more states are taking first steps into legalising medical marijuana, researchers are also actively exploring possible uses of the various chemicals that may contribute a large step in medical advancements. There is hope for patients suffering from diseases that involve the immune system such as AIDS and multiple sclerosis (gradual loss of muscle control).8

Due to the drug’s ability to reduce pain, nausea and muscle control problems, other notable conditions that may be treated by marijuana include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Side effects of chemotherapy
  • Anorexia
  • Mental health conditions (schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder)7


Is Marijuana Still Considered Illegal?

Thailand’s existing penalty for recreational use of marijuana – “up to five years in prison for possession of 10 kilograms or less” will not change even when the new law takes effect.

According to Adam Benjamin, Australia’s Medifarm Director, Thailand’s “strong tourism, agricultural and export industries” will allow the country to become one of the top players in the medical marijuana industry easier and faster than other countries who has already legalised marijuana, even though it joined the game at a much later time.4 The new legislation marks a significant shift in a country which has been enforcing harsh policies and laws on drugs, as with majority of Asian countries up to this date.

It is worth noting that “a perception of all drug use as evil” has always been emphasised strongly throughout Thai education and political messaging efforts. In other news, there are also arguments stating that the market will be monopolised by foreign markets as the legislation will “effectively exclude the private sector from the lucrative industry, worth tens of billions of dollars globally, in favour of government agencies”.5

As with all things, there will be people looking for a loophole in this situation and an opportunity to exploit the new law. This has also sparked a concern after the news broke out. It must be made clear that Thailand has not legalised the use of recreational marijuana, and the new law is permitting marijuana to be used strictly for several purposes, including medical treatments, cultivation, exportation, sales and research. Registered patients are only allowed to possess a certain amount, provided they obtain a prescription from a certified medicine practitioner licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).6

In view of the possibility that the new law may be abused, Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Biodiversity Sustainable Agriculture Food Sovereignty Action Thailand (Biothai) has stated her views on the matter. She has reminded people that it is still very illegal to grow marijuana crops in their personal homes or spaces if they do not have a verified license to do so. The use of marijuana in Thailand is punishable with the existing jail terms, and the public are strongly discouraged against breaking the law. However, she has also mentioned that allowing people to cultivate their own marijuana may not be impossible, as it may help those who are unable to afford the medicine and that those who “are in need of it most will probably be almost unable to reach it”.6 [APBN]