Thailand Kicks Off Era Of Medical Cannabis – Foreign Investors On The Sidelines
Aug 01, 2019

Thailand’s state-owned Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) will start distributing its first batch of home-made cannabis oil on August 7, 2019, to selected hospitals in the country with specially licensed doctors.

With that step, Thailand has become the first and only country in Southeast Asia to move towards legalising cannabis for medical use – albeit under strict regulations and controls.

“It is a global trend and has economic value for us,” Withoon Danwiboon, the GPO’s managing director, told media at a briefing on the topic on August 1 in Bangkok.

He added that Thailand had favourable climatic and topographic conditions to grow marihuana plants, and it will also be officially part of traditional Thai medicine in the future.

He said that other local companies could also apply for a license to grow and produce medical cannabis in larger amounts, but foreign investors, however, will be excluded for at least five years from the marihuana business in Thailand entirely.

“In the first five years when we develop the market, we won’t allow foreign companies or investors to participate,” Daniwiboon said, adding that the focus of medical cannabis was primarily on Thailand and the benefit of Thai people. Only from the second phase, foreigners might be allocated a quota to set up a limited number of medical marihuana-related operations in the country, he noted.

Falling short of pot oil

The GPO, as the sole commercial producer of cannabis-related products in Thailand so far – apart from the Chao Phraya Aphai Phubet Hospital which produces a smaller number – first planned to bring 10,000 bottles of cannabis oil the market by end-August, but will fall short of that number and will only distribute 4,000 bottles.

The reason is that the GPO had to extract the oil from low-quality marihuana plants it received in a first batch as confiscated plants from drug suspects. They had a low content of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis) and CBD (cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating compound with pain and anxiety controlling effects) and were also contaminated with chemicals and pestizides.

“The supply side is really critical,” says Unnop Likhitjitta, advisor of the board of Thailand’s Office of Narcotic Control.

He noted that while the department has received around 20 tonnes of confiscated cannabis from the police so far, under closer examination only seven kilogrammes (!) were free from chemicals or other contamination and suitable for medical use.

The GPO will therefore set the focus on growing its own marihuana plants and expand its current indoor plantation at a size of about 100 square meters to 1,000 square meters in the next step, according to Daniwiboon. He further encouraged farmers and agricultural cooperatives to apply for marihuana growing licenses.

The GPO director estimates an initial demand for cannabis oil of around 1,350 kilogrammes this year. About 400 doctors, pharmacists and dentists and 2,900 traditional medical practitioners have already attended training, and the licensing process is ongoing.

The latter, so-called folk doctors, are encouraged to grow their own marihuana and come up with drug formulas, which, however, all have to pass a strict licensing process, must have the consent of the relevant state agencies and meet all criteria set by the health ministry.

Powder, extracts and leaves

According to Pramote Stienrut, deputy director-general of the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine, around 90 formulas for medical cannabis in traditional Thai medicine – including for powder, extracts and leaves – have already been submitted, but just 16 have been approved so far, not just for marihuana, but also Thailand’s indigenous “kratom,” a tropical plant which has opioid properties and stimulant effects similar to coca.

The Phra Acharn Fan Acharo Hospital in Sakon Nakhon will develop five formulas of traditional medicines from cannabis confiscated by police.

Stienrut estimates eleven tonnes from both plants will be processed into traditional medicine products this year alone.

All cannabis medication produced in the country will have a tracking number and strict control over the distribution system through doctors and pharmacists will be exercised by the relevant authorities to prevent abuse and illicit prescriptions, says Surachoke Tangwiwat, deputy secretary-general of Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration Authority.

Likewise, all producers and logistic firms handling transport and import or export of cannabis and cannabis products need to be approved and licensed and are under strict supervision, he added.

“Cannabis is still listed as narcotic drug in category 5 of Thailand’s Narcotics Act 1979 [considered a mild addictive substance], therefore there is no provision for recreational use,” Tangwiwat says.

“Liberalising or decriminalising cannabis for recreational use like some other countries in Europe or America have done is no under discussion in Thailand as of yet,” Narcotic Control advisor Likhitjitta points out.

More drug law amendment likely to come

However, he acknowledges that there have been seven amendments to the Narcotics Act since 1979, including a reduction of jail time for offenders in the latest change of the law.

“I believe there are more amendments on the way,” he adds, noting that “we can image free ganja in Thailand, meaning that we are open to decriminalise it at some point, but this has to be discussed thoroughly under consideration of the legal hurdles.”

Such hurdles are, apart from domestic laws, also the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 which places the same restrictions on cannabis cultivation that it does on opium cultivation.

However, the convention has caused a number of controversies since its inception and triggered continuous reform proposals and also proved quite ineffective in holding off Uruguay, Canada, South Africa and Georgia, as well as twelve US states, from legalising recreational use of cannabis, and other countries such as Israel, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Belize, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Luxembourg, Estonia, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Switzerland and three federal states in Australia, to decriminalise recreational use of cannabis. In pot smoker heaven Jamaica, cannabis is legal for all Rastafari at unlimited amounts and decriminalised for the rest. So there is room for Thailand in adapting legislation further and pioneer the marihuana business in Southeast Asia.