New rules for a traditional medicine
As Thailand is the first country in Southeast Asia to amend the narcotics laws and allow cannabis, still a narcotic drug, to be used for research and medical purposes, another issue is raised if we will lead other countries in the region to legalise cannabis.
Cannabis legalisation will allow people to use cannabis for recreation and also allow the government to regulate the use and sale of marijuana, as with alcohol and tobacco. However, the legalisation has been a controversial debate with a need to weigh benefits and harms like public health, misuse leading to more crimes, and a chance to be consumed by those underage.
Cannabis has been part of Thai medicine for more than three centuries. There are at least 91 formulas that have cannabis as the ingredient. Last month the Public Health Ministry approved 16 formulas that can help cure nausea, improve appetite, promoting sleep, and relieve pain and anxiety.
Cannabis legalisation is the goal that advocates and even political parties like Bhumjaithai want to achieve. Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul announced his intention to support government candidates in favour of legalisation. He aims to promote the plant as a new cash crop for farmers.
The message is welcomed by National Farmers Council Chairman Prapat Panyachartrak. He regards cannabis as "green gold". Without legalisation, cannabis is available anyway on the black market. The price is 8,000-10,000 baht per kilo, he said. If the plant is delisted as a narcotic drug, farmers will benefit from selling the high-value plant. The government will receive more revenue from collecting taxes, and reduce the size of the black market, he said.
As of April, the US state of Colorado, for example, has collected US$993 million (31.5 billion baht) in total revenue from marijuana taxes, licenses and fees since cannabis was legalised in February 2014.
Those who use marijuana, like Daycha Siripatra and Banthoon Niyamabha, better known as Lung Tu, fully support legalisation. They regard the cannabis plant as an herb, not a narcotic drug.
Daycha, who has given cannabis oil to more than 5,000 patients for free, wants everyone to grow marijuana plants in their backyard, the same as chilli and basil, so people can use it to curb sickness and reduce the necessity to buy modern medicine.
For him, the way to make the most use of cannabis is not by smoking, but by extracting the oil. He also teaches people how to do it with simple tools so they can do it at home.
Modern medical cannabis focuses on the use of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) to treat different kinds of sickness like Alzheimer's disease, autism, cancer, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis. Traditional medicine does not care much about the two main compounds. The herbal practitioners like Daycha and Banthoon just mix the cannabis oil with other natural oils, like coconut or sesame oil. The number of drops varies depending on the sickness condition. The method is a far cry from academic research, but it helps thousands of people.
Besides, Daycha has another technique to use cannabis oil to take care of his health. He drinks 10 drops of his oil (3% cannabis oil, 97% coconut oil) before bedtime daily.
He claims that it promotes healthy sleep and helps improve his immune system and sharpen his brain.
So far people regard cannabis as a magic pill that can cure any sickness. Thus, the idea to legalise cannabis also receives the support of the general public.
A recent poll of Super Poll Research Services of Thammasat University found that more than half of its 1,116 samples favoured the marijuana legalisation. When segmented into occupations, white-collar workers are the largest group to give the thumbs-up for legalisation (71.4%), followed by government officers (61.5%), farmers (51.8%) and students (50%).
Those against legalisation are concerned about the possibility of addiction, especially among youths, the risk of mental illness, and potential for more crime.
Two surveys by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that marijuana use in Colorado remained stable for young people and increased slightly for adults after legalisation. The government of Canada, the second country to legalise marijuana, warned that people can become addicted to cannabis. It is estimated that one in 11 (or 9%) of those who use marijuana will develop an addiction to it. The ratio increases to 17% for those who use cannabis since teenage years. If a person smokes cannabis daily, the risk of addiction is 25-50%.
However, the prohibiting and criminalising the use of cannabis does not prevent people from using it.
When the 90-day amnesty period ends tomorrow, Daycha will start his 20-day "Cannabis Walk Thailand" campaign. He and his supporters will walk from Phichit to his hometown in Suphan Buri to promote cannabis legalisation.
The movement to legalise is starting. It's now a matter of when Thailand will make history again. The answer lies in the new government's hands.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.