After being listed as an illegal narcotic for many decades, Thais will finally be allowed to use and own Mitragyna speciosa, also known as kratom, as traditional medicine by August this year.
On May 28, an announcement was made in the Royal Gazette which effectively removed the plant from the list of narcotics. As new laws take effect 90 days after their publication in the Gazette, kratom use and possession will be effectively decriminalised on Aug 24.
Prior to its decriminalisation, kratom was categorised as a Class 5 Narcotic substance under the Narcotics Act, which made consuming, cultivating and possessing any part of the plant illegal.
Justice Minister, Somsak Thepsutin, said the move the regulate kratom does not end with its decriminalisation, as the parliament is now working on new laws to manage and control the cultivation and use of the plant.
"Even though kratom will soon be legal in Thailand, don't rush to plant it at home yet, as we still have to wait for the Kratom Act to be tabled," he said, before adding its use by individuals under the age of 18 will still be prohibited.
The minister said the act will enable authorities to better control the use of the plant, adding the task of regulating the plant's cultivation and use will be divided up between different ministries.
The Justice and Interior ministries, he said, will be in charge of controlling the plant's mass cultivation and use, while the Commerce and Agricultural and Cooperatives ministries will promote kratom-based herbal medicines and products.
"The [Kratom Act] will help boost the national economy as a whole," he said.
Mr Somsak said though owning kratom will no longer be considered a crime, anyone who intends to grow the plant must first seek permission from their local administrative office. A separate licence must be sought to market the plant and its products on a commercial scale, he added.
In light of the plant's upcoming legalisation, Namphu subdistrict in Surat Thani's Ban Na San district has been designated as a pilot area for kratom cultivation.
Songkram Buathong, 59, Namphu subdistrict chief, was one of the project's pioneers. He has been campaigning to decriminalise kratom for decades, emphasising the plant's many medical properties.
"Southerners have been using kratom as medicine for hundreds of years. It helps boost stamina, allowing us to work tirelessly out on the fields. It can also cure many diseases," Mr Songkram said.
He said the movement to legalise kratom in his area began in 2016, when his village was chosen to be a pilot area for kratom cultivation during seminar hosted by Narcotic Control Office division 8.
"I want to make my village a role model for kratom planting and usage, to show that we can benefit from this plant," he said.
"We came up with the first Kratom Charter of Namphu Subdistrict that we called the 'Namphu Model', which we implemented in six villages of throughout Namphu subdistrict."
The charter has six articles, the most important one which places a limit on the number of kratom plants each household can have. Villagers are allowed to keep no more than three kratom plants, and households which want to plant more must register with the village head.
Each plant will be tagged with a QR code to make them easier for officers to inspect, he said.
While villagers are allowed to have in their possession up to 30 kratom leaves per day, only the consumption of fresh leaves will be legalised under the new Kratom Act -- mixing the leaves with cough syrup or mosquito repellent to enhance its psychotropic effects will still be illegal.
"Namphu subdistrict's success have attracted many organisations to come here to study, including Songkla Nakarin University, which has signed an MoU [memorandum of understanding] to study the plant's use in medical research," he said.
Soonthon Sae-khao, 63, a resident of Namphu subdistrict and the owner of two old kratom plants said his family has been relying on the plant for decades.
Mr Soonthon said that kratom cured his father's chronic stomachache when modern medicine could not. Since then, he said, his father used the leaves as a herbal tonic, sometimes taking the leaves to boost his endurance while working at the rubber plantation.
"I am happy with Namphu Model, as it not only helps people avoid prosecution, but because it can save many lives. Before the legalisation, many people risked their lives to steal kratom leaves, but they can now plant their own," he said.
Although kratom has many beneficial properties, he insisted that its misuse is dangerous and can lead to deaths.