Thai medical marijuana craze as people rush to grow drug now it’s legal, and government encourages hospitals to champion its use

  • Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country to legalise cannabis for medical use, although possession of the plant has not been decriminalised yet
  • First government marijuana clinic has opened, and villagers in the country’s northeast used to rice growing have been asked to cultivate the plant for hospitals

“People here have ganja fever,” said Thanaporn Pornsangakul, a scientist at Pela Plern Herbal Development Centre, which is responsible for growing and supplying medical marijuana plants to Buriram’s only internationally accredited hospital. “There are so many who are interested in growing.”

The government this past week opened the doors of its first medical marijuana clinic, offering free cannabis oil and care to patients with Parkinson’s disease, cancer and insomnia, among other ailments. On the first day, hundreds of patients visited the clinic, and more than 3,700 have shown interest through the clinic’s mobile application, according to a statement.

People wait to register their prescriptions for medicinal cannabis oil during the second day of the inaugural Pan Ram weed festival in the Thai province of Buriram. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFPCommunity groups in Buriram have been asked to grow and cultivate medical-grade marijuana to be delivered to the state-owned Khu Muang Hospital as part of Anutin’s announced “Buriram Model”. The model is meant to serve as a prototype for co-operatives operated by farmers and medical institutions. He’s considering making recreational cannabis use legal, a stance which is in stark contrast to that of the government just a year ago.

The Thai government invested 100 million baht (US$3.3 million) in the first indoor growing facility, which opened last year, and bought 12,000 cannabis plant seedlings, marijuana market researchers Prohibition Partners said. A plan to prepare one million bottles of cannabis oil by February 2020 “shows ambition” on the part of the Thai government, the company said.

“Thailand has shown itself to be a leader of legislative reform among Asian nations, in relation to medical cannabis,” Prohibition Partners’ head of consultancy, Barbara Pastori, said. “This is likely to be the case with recreational cannabis also, particularly if there remains strong political will to do so.”

Before becoming Thailand’s deputy premier in the pro-military government coalition, Anutin campaigned on a pledge to legalise medical marijuana and allow household growing to boost incomes. Thai voters responded in a show of support, putting Anutin’s Bhum Jai Thai party into fifth place in Thailand’s March election.

The Ministry of Public Health, which Anutin also heads, is looking to speed up legal changes to liberalise the medical marijuana industry, including a move to allow household cultivation of as many as six cannabis plants. It is working with the Justice Ministry to decriminalise the plant.

Legalising recreational use of marijuana is “the next step”, Anutin had said at an event in Bangkok in November. Yet the move is unlikely to happen in the four-year term of the current government, he said, citing the need for more research and study.

I was always taught that marijuana was a drug, but when it was legalised, I saw so many underground patients come out to say what bad shape they were in before and how much it has helped them

Kitti Losuwanrak, director of Khu Muang Hospital, Buriram province, Thailand

Thailand’s biggest hospital operator by market capitalisation, Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, is sceptical about joining the green rush, opting to take a wait-and-see approach to the deputy prime minister’s plans for the industry.

“The situation of cannabis usage in Thailand now is uncertain – it changes nearly every day. The drive is rather political than academic,” BDMS assistant chief medical officer Wisut Lajchasaewee said. “The reliable studies or research for the benefit in medical use are rare. The most important thing is that we won’t use our patients as a guinea pig.”

Still, other medical officials see the potential for significant benefits, as legalisation prompts people to open up about how they use cannabis to deal with their conditions.

“I was always taught that marijuana was a drug, but when it was legalised, I saw so many underground patients come out to say what bad shape they were in before and how much it has helped them,” Khu Muang Hospital director Kitti Losuwanrak said in a phone interview. “The mindset is always evolving. When it was legalised, I asked: how can we put this plant into the hands of doctors?”

Rangsit University has launched a legal marijuana plantation and research institution, which it claims is the country’s first. Another university in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai, Maejo University, has established an industrial-scale cannabis manufacturing facility in a cooperation pact with the state.

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