BANGKOK - Thailand has become the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medical marijuana, but the fine print of the legislation has left advocates of the drug's healing potential with mixed feelings.
Since the bill was passed on Christmas Eve, some medical marijuana advocates have expressed disappointment the legislation will effectively exclude the private sector from the lucrative industry, worth tens of billions of dollars globally, in favor of government agencies.
Voice of America sat down with Thailand's Office of Narcotics Control Bureau Secretary-General Niyom Termsrisuk to find out who exactly will be able to grow, sell, buy and regulate medical marijuana in a country where it has long been a strictly prohibited substance.
Speaking through an interpreter, Termsrisuk told VOA that private firms would be able to cultivate, produce and sell medical marijuana, provided they were two-thirds owned by Thai nationals.
"From the cultivation to delivering to the patient, it will be under the law and regulation controlled by the committee. If it fits in the regulation and the qualifications that we have, so (then) yes, they can do it," he said.
Authorized government agencies, including those overseeing Thai traditional medicine, individual licensed medical doctors; educational institutions and community farmer cooperatives, would all be permitted to cultivate the crop.
"We will designate the process and procedure that is standardized so that if any organization comes to fit into that standard that we set, they will have the authority to do it," Termsrisuk said.
"But they need to be authorized and registered under the law. And apart from that, it will be in the consideration of the minister of public health but also approved by the committee," he added.
There will be strict controls on cultivation, including a mandate that all medical marijuana is grown indoors — which is intended to help prevent illegal practices and ensure quality — but that significantly increases the cost of cultivation.
Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, an activist with Highlands Network, has enthusiastically welcomed the legalization but said there were numerous caveats in the legislation that made commercial cultivation effectively precluded.
"All of those (groups) are allowed, but only if they are working under the control of those that have the license," she said, adding these licenses were restricted to government research institutions and universities.
"But it's not really for commercial purposes, I would say, because it strictly said research, and it also said mainly for teaching," she said.
Chopaka was also critical of a five-year restriction the law places on any expansion of these licenses, and a two-year mandated review that she says could, in theory, result in a complete reversal of legalization if the impacts are assessed to be negative.
Nevertheless, the law represents a dramatic shift in a country where strongly conservative drug politics have been underlined by zero-tolerance policies, harsh sentencing laws and a brutal war on drugs.
A perception of all drug use as evil had been reinforced through Thai educational institutions and political messaging, though cannabis had been used traditionally for centuries, Chopaka said.
But as countries such as Canada, a member of the G-7, brought in full nationwide legalization, attitudes in Thailand had also begun to slowly shift, she said.
"So, I think the way it's being done, it is baby steps and like they just want to test out the water," she said.
Keeping tight control
Marijuana-based medicines will be permitted for patients suffering chemotherapy side effects and from Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and as a Thai tradition remedy for cancer pain, according to the ONCB.
Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organization is already working on strain selection, breed improvement, cultivation and harvesting to produce medicines targeting these conditions.
Both medical doctors and Thai traditional healers will be able to prescribe these medications under Thailand's Food and Drug Administration and Ministry of Health.
But individuals, including patients, will not be permitted to personally grow marijuana at home, and recreational legalization is not on the agenda for the time being, the ONCB said.
"It's almost as strict as Australia but probably not that strict, because (in) Australia, the main rule around it was it has to be your last choice. You have to try all the other stuff first before you use cannabis," Chopaka said of the Thai government's legalization model.
Dr. Somyot Kittimunkong, who has stood at the forefront of cannabis legalization advocacy in Thailand, is deeply unhappy with restrictions in the law he believes will cut local farmers out of the medical marijuana market.
"This is the main issue — that if they want to help the people at the grassroots level, like the farmers, I think they should allow the Thai farmers to grow for export for making drugs to treat the people," he said.
Somyot also interprets the law as constraining commercial entities to cultivation for research only, which he says is unnecessary given the volume of cannabis studies that have already been conducted worldwide.
He said mandated indoor cultivation would increase the cost of production by about five times in a country with very good conditions to grow marijuana outside.
Mana Siriphittayawat, director of the Legal Affairs Bureau at the ONCB, said that he understood the law may have fallen short of some expectations but defended tight controls to ensure quality and prevent illicit misuse.
"We will monitor and control those two things, the production and cultivation, under the necessity (of) using it for medical purposes within the country," he said.
Though not yet fully developed, long term the government was looking to develop Thailand's medical marijuana business for export, he said.
"We have a vision in developing the medical cannabis business."