Thailand’s legislature has agreed to amend the country’s drug law to allow the licensed medical use of cannabis, as well as kratom, a locally grown plant traditionally used as a stimulant and painkiller.
The Thai legislation on Tuesday passed its final reading at the National Legislative Assembly by a vote of 166-0 with 13 abstentions.
“This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” said Somchai Sawangkarn, chairperson of the drafting committee, in a televised parliamentary session.
The changes, which become law when published in the Royal Gazette, legalise the production, import, export, possession and use of cannabis and kratom products for medical purposes.
Purveyors, producers and researchers will need licenses to handle the drugs, while end-users will need prescriptions.
Thailand is the first country to take such action in Southeast Asia, a region with some of the world’s strictest drug laws. The move is under consideration in neighbouring Malaysia, while New Zealand’s government earlier this month enacted a law liberalising the medical use of cannabis, which had previously been tightly restricted.
Recreational use of the drugs remains illegal in Thailand and subject to prison terms and fines commensurate with the quantities involved.
Public hearings showed overwhelming support for the measure.
The bill introducing the legislative changes had noted that recent studies have shown that cannabis extract has medicinal benefits, which has prompted “many countries around the world to ease their laws by enacting legal amendments to allow their citizens to legally use kratom and marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes”.
It added that despite being classified as an illegal drug, many patients have used cannabis to treat their diseases.
While countries from Colombia to Canada have legalised cannabis for medical or even recreational use, the drug remains illegal and taboo across much of Southeast Asia, which has some of the world’s harshest punishments for drug law violations.
Cannabis traffickers can be subject to the death penalty in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
But in Thailand, the main controversy with legalisation involved patent requests by foreign firms that could allow them to dominate the market, making it harder for Thai patients to access medicines and for Thai researchers to access cannabis extracts.
“We’re going to demand that the government revoke all these requests before the law takes effect,” Panthep Puapongpan, dean of the Rangsit Institute of Integrative Medicine and Anti-Aging, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
Some said they hoped Tuesday’s approval would pave the way for legalisation for recreational use.
“This is the first baby step forward,” said Chokwan Chopaka, an activist with Highland Network, a cannabis legalization advocacy group in Thailand.