Thailand is making rapid progress with its policy of legalising the medical use of cannabis with a pilot project in Bangkok seeing thousands of potential patients.
The Thai authorities opened the first two full-time cannabis oil clinic for medical treatment as part of a policy of promoting the drug to relieve several health conditions, including cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Approximately 400 patients, many suffering from cancer, were given marijuana oil for free at the Public Health Ministry clinic in Bangkok today (Monday). The health centre reportedly already has a waiting list of more than 2,000.
Meanwhile, Thailand is flooded with toxic methamphetamines and heroin that are produced on massive scales from narco-enclaves in Myanmar’s lawless border states.
While the Thai police have consistently failed to restrict the flow of the exceedingly damaging drugs, the quasi-democratic Bangkok government has clung to the failed policy of criminalisation.
Fortunately, with cannabis, wiser policies have been pursued to harness some of the drug’s health properties to ease the suffering of patients.
The four oils being dispensed – containing different combinations of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psycho-active ingredient in cannabis – are used for migraines, insomnia, nausea, numbness and pain. Cannabis was used in Thailand as a traditional remedy until it was outlawed in the 1960s under US influence.
In 1961 cannabis was classified as a schedule 1 drug under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, denoting it as addictive as opium, cocaine and heroin.
Washington played a central role in imposing global prohibitions on cannabis.
The biggest supplier of medicinal marijuana is currently the health ministry’s Government Pharmaceutical Organisation.
Kasetsart University’s director of cannabis research, Natakorn Thasnas, said his university would also supply about 2.2 tonnes of cannabis leaf to the ministry.
The production, cultivation and sale of cannabis have been limited to licensed Thai producers until 2024 to protect the domestic industry. At first, only hospitals and research centres were allowed to apply for cannabis permits but the authorities are reviewing the rules to allow Thai businesses to apply for licences.
In contrast with Thailand’s relaxation of laws on cannabis, Indonesia remains distinctly intolerant of the medical use of the drug, with sentences of up to four years for possession.
A 2019 report by Thailand’s Prohibition Partners, which specialises in the subject, forecast that the Asian medical cannabis market would be worth approximately US$5.8 billion by 2024.
Thailand plans to open 77 clinics with one in each Thai province.
Around 25 other clinics have been operating part-time since law changes in 2018 amended Thai drug laws to relax the production and consumption of medical marijuana.
Laws now allow each household to grow up to six cannabis plants.
The government is looking to extend the Bangkok pilot project and a wider network of clinics is expected if the trial in the capital proves successful.
“Marijuana could be an answer. At least the patients’ quality of life is improved,” said public hospital director Dr Prasert Mongkolsiri, who was advising patients at the Bangkok clinic. The health centre expects to see between 200 to 300 patients a day.
“At least it can lessen the side effects of the modern chemical-based medicines that they’ve been taking for 10 or 20 years,” the medic said, in reference to chemotherapy.
Nuthjutha Ulpathorn, 29, has cerebral palsy that prevents her from walking and speaking coherently. Since starting to take cannabis oil from a government hospital two months ago, she says she has noticed the benefits.
“I sleep better and [am] less cranky,” said Nuthjutha.
The policy is being pioneered at the top of the government.
Health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who has pioneered the liberalisation, said: “This is a pilot clinic because we cannot produce enough doctors with expertise in cannabis.”
The minister said he hoped medical cannabis might soon be added to the National List of Essential Medicine. During a visit to the suburban Bangkok clinic, the minister said inclusion on the list would allow the oils to be covered by Thailand’s Bt30 (US$1) subsidised universal health care programme. Anutin leads the Bhumjai Thai Party within the coalition government. The party won 50 seats in the 2019 general election after Anutin campaigned for legalisation of cannabis production to boost agricultural incomes.
Jim Plamondon of the Thai Cannabis Corporation in Chiang Mai has hailed the drug’s traditional use as a painkiller.
He said: “Cannabis has been a part of a collection of medicinal herbs Thais have used for [centuries]. It was mainly a drug for women because they were involved in transplanting rice, which was back-breaking work. They would eat chicken and rice laced with cannabis and get back to work.”
Thailand should be applauded for taking steps to end its foolishly prolonged experiment with outlawing cannabis. The example should be studied in Asean’s other capitals.
Meanwhile, methamphetamines continue to flood Asean with the Thai authorities confiscating an estimated 5 per cent of drug shipments.
Evidence of the tiny proportion of drugs seized is the fact that street price fails to fluctuate, despite enormous drugs hauls proclaimed by the Thai police.
The “war on drugs” should be abandoned as a failed policy. Anyone conducting a job with a 5 per cent success rate would instantly be labelled as a failure. Why should the drug police be held to a different standard?
Picture credit: NeedPix