Thailand’s government voted to legalize medical cannabis in December, according to The New York Times, becoming the first Asian nation to do so, and a beacon of reform in Southeast Asia, which is known for its especially draconian drug laws.

Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly, appointed by the military government, passed the legislation 166 to 0, with thirteen abstentions.  The chairman of the drafting committee, Somchai Sawangkam, stated during a televised legislative session that the passage “is a New Year's gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people." With the exception of a limited CBD import policy in South Korea, Thailand is the first nation in Asia to fully legalize the production and medical use of cannabis. 

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The decision suggests that the current wave of cannabis policy reform is going truly global. It also raises the possibility that the rest of the Asian region could relax some of its harsh cannabis penalties, which in Thailand as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, can even include capital punishment.  For example, a man in nearby Malaysia received a death sentence last year for selling cannabis oil, and in Indonesia, a British man could face up to 15 years in prison for possession of cannabis oil which he says was for medical use. According to Bloomberg, Singapore and Malaysia are now considering legalization for medical purposes following Thailand’s decision.

Although Thailand has legalized medical cannabis, recreational cannabis possession of five kilograms or less will still be punishable by five years in prison. Trafficking and more serious cannabis charges can lead to extensive prison time, or even the possibility of the death penalty.

However, under the new law individuals with government approval will be allowed to grow or possess cannabis for medical purposes. To qualify patients will need a prescription as well as a card identifying them as medical cannabis patients. Other details of the rules have yet to be announced, and as we have seen in the U.S., there is the potential for a wide range of variation in medical cannabis policies depending on how stringent the criteria are for qualifying as a patient.

With an ideal climate to cheaply produce cannabis for export and the potential to feed a rapidly growing global demand, U.S. and Canadian cannabis firms were already expressing interest in Thailand even before the decision on medical cannabis became official. However, the Thai government says it will give priority to domestic companies for the production, extraction, and research of cannabis.  “Exporting is an opportunity -- once the right time comes -- and that opportunity should be given to Thai producers first. It could be in the form of a joint venture with foreigners, but only as long as Thai’s have a part in it,” said Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong. If legalization continues to spread in Asia, Thailand would also offer easy access to massive markets in China and India.

As stated above, cannabis used for other than permitted medical purposes is still illegal in Thailand. Unlike prohibition in the U.S., the enforcement of cannabis law in Thailand is wildly inconsistent, with cannabis products being sold openly in many tourist-friendly parts of the country. Cannabis is reportedly widely available in these areas, and some bars and hotels permit tourists to smoke openly.

Photo by: Reuters

Photo by: Reuters

The existence of cannabis laws providing for the death penalty and of lax enforcement permitting open and easy access to cannabis in certain areas creates a dangerous situation – especially for tourists who may not understand how the system works. Until last year, Thailand had not carried out any execution since 2009, and recent cannabis convictions there have resulted in prison sentences. This is of little comfort to those charged with cannabis possession, however, since depending on the quantity, conviction can mean a life sentence.

To make matters worse, police corruption is widespread with bribes often determining which establishments are allowed to sell cannabis openly and, therefore, which tourists end up bearing the brunt of enforcement. In addition it has been reported that individuals have posed as plain-clothed police officers to extort bribes from tourists, in some cases working with those running the bars and hotels that sold the cannabis in the first place.

So while the medical cannabis law is hopeful news, it won’t solve some of the worst problems with the country’s drug laws. Thailand is sorely in need of broader reforms. But as we have seen in North America, medical cannabis often paves the way for exactly that.