Has cannabis clouded our judgement?
Today is a long-awaited day for marijuana supporters. No, I am not talking about potheads who dream of growing cannabis in their backyards. Supporters here are local traditional and alternative medicine practitioners and researchers who want to develop it for medical use.
The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is to approve the amended version of the narcotics law on Friday, and thus legalise marijuana for medical research.
Yet, I wish the NLA would drop the law, or at least defer deliberations. Though I support marijuana legalisation, I think we must be extremely cautious.
Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.
Indeed, I believe the NLA should wait until doubts that surround the patent requests for cannabis at the Department of Intellectual Property (DIP) are cleared. It would be good if the NLA set up a committee to inspect the patent requests lodged with the DIP. The panel should be comprised of representatives from various sectors: the Ministry of Commerce, foreign pharmaceutical companies, the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation, the Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine Department, universities, NGOs and consumers groups.
The inspection should not be rushed, despite the government's promise to legalise medical marijuana as a New Year's gift. Cannabis has been illegal for years, so there is no reason why we can't wait until all questions are answered.
More importantly, I think the DIP, which is responsible for granting patent protection, recently behaved as if it was stoned from smoking too much pot.
No, I am not suggesting Commerce Ministry officials eat pot brownies or smoke weed in their free time.
Yet, it appears the DIP is under the influence of something after accepting 31 patent registration requests from pharmaceutical firms for medical products that contains cannabis extracts and/or concoctions. Most of the requests were filed by foreign companies. Thai companies cannot develop such products because cannabis is still illegal.
Local researchers are alarmed because they fear their attempts to develop cannabis-based medicines might be affected. Their concerns have grounds. The patent process accords five years of patent protection to applicants, irregardless of the eventual decision on their requests. Protection begins on the day the request is formally accepted.
Biothai, a biodiversity advocacy group, launched an online campaign asking people to support their petition to the Commerce Ministry to fully disclose the number of patent requests for medical cannabis products. Public pressure led the DIP to drop a few requests, though it still accepted about 20 for deliberation.
Local researchers, including those at Rangsit University, are preparing to sue the DIP for accepting requests that might violate the Patent Act. The case indicates potential clashes and conflicts on patent rights and the equitable sharing of natural resources, such as cannabis.
While marijuana is seen only as an ingredient in several traditional Thai concoctions and alternative medicines, Western and Japanese pharmaceutical firms have gone further by developing and patenting cannabis-based drugs.
Some may view this as an issue of trade protection. In terms of patents, there are a lot of differences between foreign pharmaceutical firms and Thai traditional medical practices.
Thai laws prevent the patenting of compounds extracted from plants, microorganisms and animals. Other countries, such as Japan and the US, allow the patenting of such extracts.
In Thailand, traditional medicines, plants and even microorganisms are treated as common property, not to be patented because they were not invented, but rather discovered from nature and passed along as local wisdom. The Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine has already compiled as many as 93 formulas of concoctions with marijuana as as their main ingredient, including those in the three-century-old Phra Naraya textbook.
These concoctions have been used to treat a wide range of conditions ranging from miscarriage complications and insomnia to epilepsy. However, the formulas have never been protected by commercial patents as they are categorised as common knowledge.
What will happen to traditional concoctions that share the same formulas with newly patented medicinal products? What will happen if foreign patent requests overlap with local research?
We need to act, but don't know how. Society seems carried away by the magic of marijuana, wishing to see it legalised and commercialised as soon as possible, no questions asked. Everyone seems too stoned to make a rational decision.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor