BANGKOK — Buddhist-majority Thailand is on the brink of becoming the first Southeast Asian nation to legalize medical marijuana, a development that has pot connoisseurs around the world lighting up in anticipation.
Thai officials are hoping the country’s traditional cannabis varieties, its famed stoner “Thai sticks” and its expertise in exporting will make the country a powerhouse in a globally exploding market.
Authoritarian Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is so bullish on Thailand’s prospects as a marijuana hub that his government has contemplated invoking extraordinary powers to defend Thai marijuana products from foreign rivals who have applied for patents to get a foot in the door of the domestic industry.
In October, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly proposed amendments to the Health Ministry that would legalize marijuana production and establish licenses for possession and distribution. Thai narcotics officials are telling their counterparts that the process to fully legalize marijuana for medical uses is expected by May.
Like France for wines or Iran for pistachios, Thailand would enter the global pot market preceded by a considerable reputation for quality. During the Vietnam War, one Drug Enforcement Administration officer memorably dubbed the cannabis grown in Thailand as the “Cuban cigar of the marijuana world.”
“Marijuana is Thailand’s future cash crop,” Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong told reporters last month. Jet Sirathraanon, chairman of the National Legislative Assembly’s standing committee of public health, told Agence France-Presse when the legalization bill was introduced, “I’m doing this because it’s an opportunity for Thai people. Thailand has the best marijuana in the world.”
Marijuana is strictly illegal across Southeast Asia, but Canada, Uruguay and several U.S. states have fully legalized the drug and many more countries have opened the door to medicinal pot. The U.S. consulting firm Grand View Research estimates that the world medical marijuana market will surpass $55 billion by 2025.
During the 1960s and 1970s, American hippies and other aficionados sang the praises of Thai sticks, which are cannabis buds wrapped in marijuana leaves and skewered on bamboo sticks to make potent cigars.
Demand led to a production boom in some of Thailand’s poorest regions in the 1970s and 1980s. The boom was snuffed out when the country adopted draconian laws during the high point of the U.S. war on drugs. Marijuana remains illegal in Thailand, with long prison sentences meted out for possession, sales and smuggling.
Nevertheless, Thailand allows a monthly “Full Moon Party” on Koh Phangan, an island where thousands of mostly young foreign tourists drink buckets of beer, smoke Thai weed, drop ecstasy and other drugs and dance on the beach until dawn. In cities, people gossip about discreet parties in posh residences where expatriate professionals and wealthy Thais smoke pot, drink expensive whiskeys and feast on fine food while discussing world affairs.
At some hip entertainment venues where tobacco is allowed outside, marijuana’s scent occasionally mingles in the air. In winding back streets, impoverished workers wearing ragged clothes sometimes share a smoke while waiting to hoist heavy sacks of rice or pull carts laden with construction debris.
The majority of Thais obey drug laws, but their changing cultural interests are influenced by hip-hop, Hollywood and the internet.
In Bangkok, long-haired, tattooed Thais at a November rally for legalization held signs that included in broken English: “Cannabis change world!”
Preparing for legislation to legalize medical marijuana, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization reportedly invested $3.6 million to create a marijuana plantation for research and development. Thai officials now openly talk about the medical benefits of marijuana, drawing on a long tradition. Cannabis was used as a folk remedy for ailments such as migraine headaches, malaria and pain relief for new mothers.
“It can kill people if we can’t allow the use of cannabis for medical treatment to save lives,” Dr. Sophon Mekthon, GPO chairman, told a recent seminar.
Mr. Prayuth’s military-led government is watching the legislative process unfold but says it wants to protect patents before loosening the 1979 Narcotics Act to legalize marijuana for medical use.
Mr. Prayuth has invoked a provision of the constitution he pushed through in 2014 giving the prime minister “the powers to make any order” to maintain security, stop threats to national economics and control other situations inside or outside Thailand.
He is acting as Thai producers voice fears of being blocked from local research and losing out on potentially massive profits.
The Department of Intellectual Property has received patent applications from foreign companies for THC-derived products that could be made or sold in Thailand, and the department is considering how to proceed. The Thai Patent Act of 1979 forbids patents on “animals, plants or extracts from animals or plants,” including “extracts from animals or plants that have not undergone any man-made substantial processing.”
Thai Cannabis Corp., a Thailand-based firm, plans to apply for a license to sell cannabis-based extracts to health manufacturers, marketing chief Jim Plamondon told the Reuters news agency this week.
“The attitude is that it’s already a part of traditional medicine …,” Mr. Plamondon said, “and we should ensure that Thais can control their own industry.”
Inexpensive medical care is a winning issue among Thais, and medical marijuana legalization is hugely popular, according to opinion polls.
Health officials, including some at the Rangsit University Pharmacy College, want to experiment with extracts to treat nausea, neuropathy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, severe pain and other dire conditions. The Public Health Ministry and the Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine want to explore marijuana’s healing properties by testing scores of formulas that can date back hundreds of years and include boiling the plant or distilling it in alcohol and mixing it with other herbs.
But there will still be limits.
“This does not mean people are allowed to grow marijuana in the backyards,” government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta warned last month as the government prepared its new regulations. “It will still be under control.”
Although many people hope the government will make recreational use legal, that may take years.
“This is not the time to allow people to smoke pot and laugh all day,” Mr. Prayuth said.