Call to take weed policy further
Medical dope trailblazer says state monopolies likely to hinder access, but not all agree
Tuesday is the final day for a government amnesty over those who wish to declare cannabis which they have in their possession for medicinal use. After that, those caught with the drug could be arrested and charged.
The amnesty was declared on Feb 27 as a result of amendments to the narcotics law by the National Legislative Assembly on Dec 24 last year, which exempts marijuana use for medical purposes from prosecution.
To mark the end of the amnesty, an event called "Cannabis Walk Thailand" will start in the morning at Wat Pah Vachirabhotiyan in Phichit province. The march will be led by Daycha Siripatra, founder of the Khaokwan Foundation.
Mr Daycha and supporters will walk the 256 kilometres from Phichit province to Wat Bang Pla Mor in Suphan Buri province. The walk will end on June 9. Both temples are centres where Mr Daycha distributes cannabis oil to cancer patients.
The march comes as the government faces calls from the public, non-government organisations, traditional medicine practitioners and pro-cannabis policy markers, including politicians from the Bhumjaithai Party, to fully legalise marijuana, so that people can plant it at home and make money from selling it.
Mr Daycha, too, believes the government should go further.
"The amended version of the Narcotics Act is good but not good enough to allow the public to reap the full benefit of cannabis," Mr Daycha told the media at a function on May 9, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Khaokwan Foundation.
As cannabis-based medicine become famous, Thailand starts promoting the cannabis use for medical treatment. There are few state-authorised institutes that grow the cannabis. They are facilities at Rangsit University, Khon Kaen University and greenhouse of Government Pharmaceutical Organization .
The amended narcotics law still prevents traditional practitioners from growing cannabis as state-issued permits are required to grow the plant.
"That will force users and medical practitioners to rely on authorised suppliers, who can manipulate the price, or expensive illegal black market suppliers," said Mr Daycha.
Yet, Somchai Sawangkan, a member of the NLA, said yesterday now is not the time to allow farmers, medical practitioners or anyone to grow cannabis freely.
His sentiment was echoed by Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) secretary-general Tares Krassanairawiwong who earlier said that, despite the potential of cannabis in medicine, Thailand should think twice about adopting full-scale liberalisation.
"A well-rounded study and debates on the pros and cons should be made so that we can choose the option that has the least detrimental impact on our children and culture," he said.
FOUNDATION UNDER FIRE
Mr Daycha, a 71-year-old long-time cannabis activist, has researched medical treatments using the drug for two decades. His foundation is famous for promoting sustainable farming, pesticide controls and preserving traditional Thai strains of marijuana.
For the last few years, the foundation has handed out cannabis oil -- dubbed "Daycha Oil" -- to cancer patients.
Mr Daycha said he believed the full liberalisation of cannabis for medical use will save the state and patients money.
"Imagine that if every tambon local administration had a temple or centre which distributed free or cheap cannabis oil to patients. People would save a lot of money. That is what I would call a sustainable public health care policy," he said.
Dr Tares, on the other hand, believes "in terms of economic benefit to farmers, it is better to promote planting hemp."
A derivative of cannabis, hemp can be used for various purposes, including as fibre for textiles, seeds for vitamins and cosmetics.
It can also be used for medical treatment as it is rich in CBD (Cannabidiol), which help patients suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy and also those prone to epilepsy or as seizures.
However, hemp has no potential for abuse, whereas "full-scale marijuana liberalisation means people can grow and smoke weed at home for recreational purposes," said Dr Tares.
Those who consume marijuana for recreation can still be jailed for up to a year and be fined up to 20,000 baht.
Mr Daycha gained notoriety after police raided the offices of the foundation in April and confiscated over 200 marijuana plants and cannabis oil.
Mr Daycha avoided capture as he was travelling in Laos at the time, but his assistant, Pornchai Choolert, was arrested. After subsequent media attention, and pressure from social media users, police were forced to drop the charges as they had conducted the raid before the May 21 deadline for declaring medical use.
Subsequently, the Food and Drug Administration approved Mr Daycha as one of 170 medical practitioners allowed to prescribe cannabis oil.
So far, 10,000 patients have registered at his foundation to receive treatment.
This month, the foundation began a research collaboration to produce and develop cannabis extracts with Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Medicine. The venture is regarded as a rubber stamp for the foundation to continue with its mission to give free cannabis oil to its patients.
However, Mr Daycha warns that cannabis treatments will face supply problems due to the monopolies likely to be created by the amended law.
"The problem is there will not be enough marijuana cope with demand. The question is: How can we produce enough cannabis-based medicines when there are only a few places authorised to grow the plant?"
Currently, most of the 170 practitioners authorised to prescribe the drug by the Ministry of Public Health are not permitted to harvest their own marijuana. Only Mr Daycha is permitted to grow the plant in accordance with the state-permitted research contract the foundation recently signed with Chulalongkorn University.
Currently, there only a few authorised greenhouses -- one belongs to Rangsit University and the others are overseen by the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation and Khon Kaen University.
In the future, the government plans to grant permits to farmers who register as social enterprises and cooperatives, while the law allows companies that cooperated with state research projects to apply to grow the plant too.
However, Mr Daycha expects businesses with high-tech facilities and wealthy backers will receive the lion's share of the permits.
Meanwhile, there are around 800,000 patients currently using cannabis for medical treatment, said Mr Daycha, citing research by his foundation. He said that number will only increase as more people become aware of the potential benefits of the drug.
Mr Daycha is adamant the state-authorised cannabis production model will not be able to keep up and the influx of illegal marijuana from across the border in Laos will continue unabated despite Thailand's moves to liberalise its use.
"These underground markets jack up the price. My foundation gives our extract oil for free and our production costs are only 15 baht per 15cc bottle of oil. However, the same small bottles often sell for up to 5000 baht on the black market."
But Mr Somchai struck a more cautious note, suggesting there should be no rush for a further amendment.
"If Thailand really wants to legalise marijuana, more talks with the relevant stakeholders need to happen, as legalisation could have a huge impact on Thai society."