When Suda Srinajnaja, 32, was arrested for possessing just one marijuana plant on 20 February 2020, she likely had no idea what the cannabis laws are in Thailand. She was growing a single plant for medicinal use, nobody was harmed, and she later passed a drug screen when tested.
That she passed a drug screen is unsurprising when looking at the evidence provided by the police- her plant was all leaf, no bud. In other words, her plant most likely hadn’t yielded anything that could be of medicinal use.
For the sake of trying to prove her crime, I’ll be hypothetical. Let’s imagine that she wasn’t using those leaves for medicinal purposes. If she was cooking with them, which Thais have done for centuries, nobody would be getting hurt and still nobody would be getting high.
The primary psychoactive ingredient derived from cannabis plants (THC) would likely be burned off from cooking, if they even existed in the first place. It’s uncommon for the leaves to have enough cannabinoid substance to appeal to people looking to use cannabis recreationally, aka to get high.
I can also assure you that those leaves are of little-to-no monetary value, so there is nobody high-up missing out on a “satang” (money) of otherwise potential tax profits, either. So, to say that she was intending to distribute the leaves would really be a stretch, even for the most optimistic of profiteers.
Yet, regardless of what her intentions were, Suda actually did break the law, and that is what we are going to discuss first. She was found in possession of a controlled substance – a narcotic, in fact. The law that she broke is confusing, multifaceted and still a work in progress. With time, we’ll surely see it change. But for now, let’s summarize what the legal landscape of cannabis looks like in Thailand today.
On 25 December 2018, Somchai Sawangkarn, who at the time was a junta-appointed senator, unveiled a “New Year’s Gift for the Thai people”. On that Christmas day, the National Legislative Assembly passed an amendment to the Narcotic Act of 1979 that legalized marijuana (furthermore referred to as cannabis) for medicinal use and research, making Thailand the first country in Southeast Asia to do so.
The Narcotic Act of 1979 scheduled drugs as such:
- Category 1- dangerous narcotics such as heroin;
- Category 2- ordinary narcotics such as morphine, cocaine, codeine, medicinal opium;
- Category 3- narcotics which are in the form of medicinal formula and contain narcotics of category II as ingredients in accordance with the rules prescribed by the Minister and published in the Government Gazette;
- Category 4- chemicals used for producing narcotics of category I or category II such as acetic anhydride, acetyl chloride.
- Category 5- narcotics which are not included in category I to category IV such as marijuana, kratom plant.
Under the new amendment, which was subsequently published in the Royal Gazette on 18 Feb 2019, cannabis is still listed as a Category 5 narcotic, but the change made it so that any substances in that category now have some legal exceptions.
Per the amendment that passed, Cannabis and kratom can now be prescribed for medicinal use and are allowed to be carried in amounts specified by the doctor prescribing them to be used as medicine.
However, if a person is found to be in possession of a Category 5 narcotic, it is legal if (and only if) that person is also carrying a prescription or recognised certificate.
Additionally, on 27 Feb 2019, an amnesty program was launched that allowed people in possession of Category 5 narcotics for medicinal purposes to register themselves with the FDA within 90 days of the passing of the amendment- and tons of people did it, both in person and online.
According to the FDA, 31,177 people applied for medical cannabis amnesty online during the 90-day registration period, and even though the number of people using cannabis as medicine is assumed to be way higher, only a small number of people were deemed eligible.
Then, on 26 August 2019, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul announced a plan that allows ministry-run hospitals in the Kingdom to prescribe cannabis oil for medicinal use, but noting that only hospitals run by the Ministry of Health can prescribe the medicine. On the list of hospitals, there are 896 hospitals that are run by the ministry.
Confused, yet? Me, too.
The long and short of the developing framework for legal medicinal cannabis in Thailand can be summarized, by the law, as such:
Individuals who have obtained a license can produce, possess, import and export cannabis for the purpose of treating diseases and other medical conditions, so long as the following conditions are met:
- Each import or export of cannabis must receive a license every time it is imported or exported from the licensee.
- Use or possession is for the purpose of providing a clear medicinal benefit in the treatment of a patient or patients; or for the purpose of education, research and development including for agriculture, commerce, science and industry; or for the medicinal benefit of a person who has obtained license from the licensee with approval of the committee.
- In the case of bringing cannabis into or out of the Kingdom, no more than the amount required for treatment of specific diseases is allowed and must be accompanied by a prescription or certificate from a medical professional, such as a professional dentist, a professional doctor, a professional practitioner of Thai traditional medicine, or a folk doctor according to the law on Thai traditional medicine, or others who are able to provide treatment when receiving a license from the licensee.
So, where can I get a prescription?
More on that, later.
For now, what we know is that while Thailand has taken big steps towards comprehensive medical cannabis legalization, it’s not as simple as waving the victory flag, rolling up a joint and going for a stroll down Sukhumvit. The rollout of legal cannabis reform in Thailand is modular, just like everywhere else, and it’s not without confusion and concern.
Legalization in Thailand has issues similar to those seen in other countries with medical cannabis reform. In our case, drug arrests spiked after the original amendment to decriminalize medical cannabis passed and it’s not because people were shooting up more heroin. It’s because people saw the smoke signal that cannabis is legal, ran with the headline that we’re now living in Highland, and as a result they relaxed their guard and got busted, just like Suda.
I, for one, am optimistic that there is a bright future ahead for the comprehensive legalization of medicinal cannabis in Thailand. The unrefuted science that cannabis is a highly-effective (and safe) medicine set aside, there are economic benefits that the government is already well-aware of. In fact, even before the legalization amendment was formally brought to the parliament, government officials were already buzzing about it.
And just in case you thought government optimism is too good to be true, here’s a picture of General Prayut Chan-oh-cha holding a “Dr. Ganja” weed leaf pillow after attending an event on 11 December 2019 to promote Thailand’s growing acceptance of cannabis for medical purposes.
The following day, 12 December 2019, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul announced the launch of http://medcannabis.go.th/, a government website to disseminate useful information to the public about medical cannabis in Thailand. In his own words:
“To make it easier for everyone to understand, every piece of information published on the website has been simplified and is supported by reliable sources,” he said.