It is indisputable that cannabis is the next big thing, gaining more attention from consumers, governments, as well as related businesses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had proposed earlier this year that cannabis and cannabis-related substances should be removed from the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs will decide in March next year whether or not to remove cannabis from the global list of narcotics.
In North America, Canada has fully legalized recreational cannabis, as well as 10 US states. Medical cannabis is legal in 33 states, 4 out of 5 permanently inhabited US territories, and the District of Columbia. In South America, Uruguay was the first country to fully legalize cannabis, but prohibits non-residents from buying it, while Chile, Columbia, and Peru have legalized medical cannabis. In South Africa, consumption of cannabis is allowed, but not sales. On the European continent, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, and Poland have all legalized medical cannabis. In the Asia-Pacific region, medical cannabis is legal in Australia (which is also planning to become the fourth country in the world to legalize exports of medicinal cannabis), as well as in Thailand, the first country in Southeast Asia to do so.
Thailand’s new law for cannabis
In late December 2018, the interim Thai parliament approved, in a unanimous 166-0 vote, the amendment of narcotics laws to permit the use of cannabis for medical treatment and research in its third and final session deliberating the bill. A royal decree on February 18, 2019, made it officially legal.
Under the new law, those eligible for marijuana possession or cultivation are patients with prescriptions, drug or health-related government agencies, certified medical professionals, educational institutions, agricultural community enterprises registered with the state, and international transportation operators. However, cultivation must be approved and operated under the direct supervision of the Office Narcotics Control Bureau
The new legislation was welcomed by many but also met with some criticism that the legislation would effectively exclude the private sector from the lucrative industry, worth tens of billions of dollars globally, in favor of government agencies.
Foreign companies and foreign-majority companies incorporated in Thailand are prohibited from producing, selling, importing, exporting, and possessing cannabis. These restrictions came about after an outcry against foreign applicants with advanced technology and capability applying for Thai patent protection prior to the opening of the domestic market.
Niyom Termsrisuk, secretary-general of the Office of Narcotics Control Bureau (ONCB), said private firms would be able to cultivate, produce, and sell medical marijuana, provided they were two-thirds owned by Thai nationals and are authorized and registered under the law. The government hopes that one-third foreign ownership in a Thai company could result in the transfer of some technology and know-how for developing cannabis-based pharmaceutical products for local distribution and export.
Termsrisuk also said there will be strict controls on cultivation, including a mandate that all medical marijuana is grown indoors. This is intended to help prevent illegal practices and ensure quality. Termsrisuk revealed that the agency is working with Kasetsart University, one of Thailand’s top universities, to design a low-cost greenhouse that would enable Thai enterprises to operate their business on a small budget while preventing the crops from “leaking out”.
Tobacco Authority wanted in but denied
All that being said, the first private request to grow, process, and sell cannabis, made in February 2019 shortly after the law became official, was rejected, even though it was the Tobacco Authority of Thailand (TAOT), formerly the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, who had made the request.
TAOT had proposed to contract farmers that they grow cannabis and hemp for commercial use to make up for a revenue shortfall in tobacco due to an expected hike in excise tax which will double the retail prices of cigarettes. TAOT also said that hemp, particularly, could be commercially developed into raw materials used in the medical industry, automobile parts, garments, and food supplements.
One day after TAOT’s request, Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA) secretary-general, Thares Karassanaiyarawiwong, slapped it down, saying TAOT could obtain a license to cultivate cannabis for research but not for commercial purposes; that TAOT could request permission as either a researcher or a grower; and that a separate license would also be needed to import cannabis.
According to ONCB, licenses can be obtained only by seven groups, which are state-run research agencies or agencies which teach medicine and related fields; professional practitioners of medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary and Thai medicine; privately-run educational institutes which teach or research in medicine or pharmacy; eligible community enterprises made up of farmer which are legally registered; trans-border public transport operators; patients from abroad or going abroad who rely on cannabis medication; and other persons or agencies specified by related ministerial regulations.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again
At the end of April 2019, TAOT announced that it is lobbying for a license to produce cannabis-based cigarettes, hoping that if it can get the go-ahead to do so, the cannabis cigarettes would be as available in convenience stores as normal tobacco cigarettes.
TAOT is using health benefits as its reason for this move. “Our main intention when requesting a license had to do with the medical benefits, research and extracting the oils to export to other countries. But if the Ministry of Health lets us produce cigarettes, we are ready to do so immediately,” said Daonoi Suttiniphapunt, TAOT managing director.
Suttiniphapunt explained that if legislated, the cannabis cigarettes would mostly contain CBD, the non-psychoactive compound that doesn’t give you a ‘high’, so the medical benefits would be available but not the ‘highs’ usually associated with cannabis.
Relevant government bodies have not yet commented on this matter at press time.
R&D already put in gear
Various organizations have already set forth with cultivation and r&d of cannabis. Thailand’s first legal cannabis farm was unveiled in late February 2019, although it is only a 100 sq.m. greenhouse. The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) invested THB10 million to build the greenhouse on its premises in Thanyaburi district, PathumThani province, on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Even before the legislation was even passed, Rangsit University had developed a type of oral marijuana spray called cannabis oromucosal spray for seriously ill patients. Such sprays are typically based on cannabidiol compounds, which do not have psychoactive effects. Researchers at Rangsit’s Faculty of Pharmacy produced its own prototype but said further development would require government grants, as well as potentially growing their own, better-quality cannabis in an enclosed greenhouse in a controlled environment.
Naresuan University has announced its plans to begin introducing high-quality cannabis-derived medicines in five years. Researchers at the university have already started working on this, even though the university has only received permission to possess cannabis for research, and not to cultivate it. The university will instead receive bricks of cannabis from the Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau. Naresuan researchers are looking for a pain-killing extract for sublingual use and a treatment for abnormal skin conditions. They also hope to develop a hemp-based gauze that would heal as well as bind wounds.
Thai Sativa cannabis
An interesting fact that could make Thailand’s legalization of medical cannabis is that the country has its own landrace strain of cannabis. Thai Sativa cannabis was already well-known and often bred to preserve high THC levels. The strain is indigenous to the jungles of Thailand.