Sun, 25 Aug 2019

BANGKOK - If all goes as planned, Thai citizens suffering from cancer and a handful of other diseases and disorders could start taking the country's first legal doses of medical cannabis within days.

The Government Pharmaceutical Organization delivered its premier batch of cannabis oil to the Ministry of Public Health last week, eight months after Thailand became the first country to legalize the drug for medical use in Southeast Asia, a region known more for its harsh anti-drug laws.

The 5-milliliter bottles are being rolled out to 12 hospitals across the country that will in turn dole out doses to the first 4,000 registered patients. Somsak Akkslip, director general of the Health Ministry's Medical Services Department, told VOA that those hospitals could start prescribing the medicine as soon as the end of this week.

Thailand's then-military junta amended the country's tough narcotics laws in December in a bid to cash in on a flowering global medical cannabis industry projected to be worth $5.8 billion by 2024 in Asia alone, according to Prohibition Partners, a UK-based research group.

The cause received a major boost in March, when the Bhumjaithai party made a strong showing in the general election on a platform to fully legalize marijuana, the psychotropic variety of cannabis. The party splashed pictures of the plant's pointy leaves across its posters while its president, Anutin Charnvirakul, preached the profit potential of giving each household the right to grow up to six pot plants each.

Anutin parlayed his success at the polls into a spot on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's new cabinet as minister of health, the perfect vantage from which to push his plans. He made a spectacle of the cannabis oil's arrival last week, even reportedly dancing before the cameras, drawing bemused speculation that he may have sampled the supply, which he later denied.

Medicinal use only

But hopes that Thailand will go the way of Canada and the few other countries that have legalized cannabis for recreational use any time soon are premature, say officials and industry watchers.

Despite the recent rollout of medical cannabis oil, Anutin has been backpedaling on his campaign talk "badly" since taking office, said Chokwan Kitty Chopaka of the Highland Network, a local advocacy group in favor or legalizing recreational use.

Even his push for pot plants in every home has morphed into plans to let a select group of public health volunteers nurse a few pots of hemp. The cannabis variety is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that gives the plant its psychotropic power, but high in its cousin cannabidiol (CBD), also valued for its medical applications.

"So I don't see recreational being [legalized] anywhere in the near future," Chokwan said.

Somsak agreed that there was little apatite for legalizing recreational use among the senor officials of the new government, dominated by ex-generals and the pro-military Palang Pracharath party. The typically conservative Democrat party, another key player in the ruling coalition, has come out staunchly against it.

Even convincing them to let households grow their own marijuana plants for sale to the medical market could prove tricky, he added, and would happen only if the pilot with health volunteers and hemp proves successful.

"If we can do this with high quality, and [the] Thai population has very high discipline, then we can grow it, I mean the people can grow it in their house," Somsak said. "But that is a long time [away]."

Even so, the health services director was bullish on the Thai medical cannabis industry's future.

"Cannabis can be grown in Thailand very easy, and I think our climate is very ... good for cannabis to be cultivated, so I think it's very high potential," he said.

"The first few years we have to [work] out the technology, how to cultivate with high quality to get the high CBD and without ... other toxic agents," he added.

Chokwan and Somsak both said it would likely be at least three years before Thailand was ready in terms of both quantity and quality to export its product.

Prohibition Partners, in a report on Asia's cannabis market published in May, predicted that Thailand's medical cannabis business could be worth $237 million within five years.

But with Australia and China also on the verge of becoming major CBD producers, and other countries in the region showing interest as well, Chokwan said Thailand could yet miss out if it moves too slow.

She also worried that average Thai farmers will see little of any local windfall, as they would need to effectively run their cannabis farms under the government's auspices.

"For small guys it's kind of really difficult to try and partner up with the government if you don't have the funding to put in the infrastructure of grow. And a lot of grow and licensing that's going on now, or the ones that are trying to get licensed, are usually backed by bigger companies," she said.

Chokwan warned too that much of the added profits will end up in the black market if the burgeoning medical cannabis business stimulates demand and raises prices - as she expects it to - and the government can't keep up.

Bryan Arkaporn has his doubts the government can.

The 21-year-old business major found out he had epilepsy five yeas ago, after blacking out during his first seizure on a train ride in Japan. He has been taking pills every day since to keep the seizures at bay, but also grows his own pot for added help and occasionally buys cannabis oil from a friend who makes it himself.

He hopes the cannabis oil the government comes up with will be cheaper than the pills he takes for $6 a day and better for his liver in the long run. But videos the government has posted online of its greenhouses and lab work have left him uninspired.

"If I know someone that makes better medicine, maybe I will just go for the black market," he said.

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