Thai officers show some marijuana before a news conference Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 25, 2018.
Thai officers show some marijuana before a news conference Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 25, 2018.

BANGKOK - Thai Department of Intellectual Property (DIP) officials “rushed” the inspection of a controversial foreign medical marijuana patent application that the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) said violated Thai laws, official communications seen by VOA indicate.

The patent application, which is still pending, was submitted by the British firm GW Pharmaceuticals and Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical for what opponents of the claim say is effectively an attempt to copyright a raw extract of cannabis that they argue should not be considered an “invention.”

The concern is that the patents, and others pertaining to medical cannabis, would lead to foreign corporate monopolization of Thailand's new medical marijuana industry, which was legalized in December.

In a May 28 meeting last year, pharmacist Lucksamephen Sarnchawanakit from the GPO’s Drug Patent Information Subdivision told DIP staff the application sought to patent phytocannabinoid, an active ingredient found naturally, for use in the treatment of spasms.

“It is clear that this is in violation of Article 9(1) of the Thai Intellectual Property Act stating that inventions not protected under the Act include microorganisms and/or any part of the microorganisms found in nature, animals, plants, and plant extracts,” Lucksamephen said, according to the minutes of the meeting seen by VOA.

According to the minutes, a DIP representative told those at the meeting, “(We) only have a small number of inspectors, who are not specifically trained for medical patent inspection, and many more patents which are not yet inspected.”

“Therefore, the inspectors rushed the inspections, which may have caused some problems in the inspections. The DIP will accept all the suggestions and will discuss with the legal team as to ways to deny the applications in the already released [official registry].”

Violation of Thai law

In a follow up meeting in June, GPO chairman Dr. Sopon Mekthon expressed concern that up to five of the patents lodged by the two firms violated Thai law before DIP director-general Thosapone Dansuputra reassured him they would be rejected but explained lengthy application procedures would have to take place first.

On Monday Mekthon confirmed his opposition the patent application.

“The [article] 9(1) states that it is not possible to patent plant extracts. They bring in cannabis extract and want to patent it, claim it’s new. You can’t do that. You can’t claim that,” he said.

Asked why the application had still not been declined, he said: “I don’t know. You have to ask DIP. It’s their responsibility to comment on the matter. I also would like to know their criteria so we can act accordingly.”

DIP officials have yet to respond to VOA’s requests for comment on this story.

In response to the civil society uproar over the patents, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha indicated in November that he might invoke article 44 - a provision of the military drafted constitution that gives him sweeping powers - to cancel them, according to The Nation newspaper.

In late December a GW Pharmaceuticals spokesperson told VOA via email it had applied for six patents but said they had “not yet been granted and it would not therefore be appropriate for GW to comment in detail.”

“GW’s patents are specific to the use of cannabinoids in therapeutic areas in which we have achieved novel innovations and we believe they are both valid and defensible,” the spokesperson said. “Our patents are a result of 20 years of cutting-edge research into cannabinoid science and the development of regulatory approved medicines, which have already helped thousands of seriously ill patients around the world.”

GW produces Sativex, the world’s first cannabis derived prescription drug, which is used to treat Multiple Sclerosis-related symptoms, and are also developing marijuana based drugs for epilepsy, cancer, psychosis, and chemotherapy side effects.

Warangkana Tewapunkul, senior compliance officer at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Thailand, said the patents were being handled exclusively by their parent company in Japan and that news reports implying her company had tried to “buy off” Thai government officials were false.

Patent challenges

Thai Marijuana advocates have also argued the patents, which date back as far as 2008, should have been automatically invalidated as they predate the legalization.

Marijuana had long been strictly forbidden under Thai law until the country moved toward a tightly controlled model of legalized medical marijuana late last year.

Dr. Somyot Kittimunkong, author of Marijuana is Medicine That Cures Cancer, said many Thais who had applied for medical marijuana patents previously had been outright rejected.

“So if we cannot get it, get the patent, why [is it] the company like Otsuka or G[W] Pharma can get it,” he asked.

Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, an activist with Highland Network, said some of the GW and Otsuka’s patent applications were recipes for medicines that were understandable.

“But there has been a few of them that actually just patent the substance itself - the substance that’s derived from cannabis like they were trying to patent THC, CBD, THCA, you know all those named substances, the active ingredients of cannabis,” she said. “It actually violated the patent policies of Thailand but the fact that the actual application is still pending within the actual patent application process without being cancelled, that’s a big problem that we are having right now.”

Niyada Kiatying-Angsulee, manager of the Drug System Monitoring and Development Center, said the number of medical marijuana patent applications had dramatically increased recently.

Of the 13 that were publicly listed at present, all appeared to her to contravene the legal prohibition on patenting microorganisms, plants and plant extracts, she said.