A marijuana plant juxtaposed against a Thai flag and prison cell in a collage image. Image: Facebook
A marijuana plant juxtaposed against a Thai flag and prison cell in a collage image. Image: Facebook

Buddhist-majority Thailand will soon become the first Southeast Asian nation to legalize medical marijuana, hoping its traditional secretive potions, stoner “Thai Sticks,” inexpensive quality health care and export marketeers will rescue patients and produce award-winning cash crops.

Thailand’s coup-installed junta leader, Prayut Chan-ocha, is apparently so enthusiastic he is using draconian powers to defend Thai marijuana products from foreign patents which have been applied for in Bangkok to monopolize future herb-derived concoctions.

Preparing for medical marijuana’s legalization, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) has reportedly invested US$3.6 million to create a marijuana plantation for research and development.

“It can kill people if we can’t allow the use of cannabis for medical treatment to save lives,” GPO chairman Sophon Mekthon told a recent seminar.

“Marijuana is Thailand’s future cash crop,” Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong said in November.

Prayut’s military government is moving swiftly to protect patents before loosening the 1979 Narcotics Act to legalize marijuana for medical use.

“I am writing a new order under Section 44,” Prayut said on November 26.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha gestures during a visit to Samut Sakhon, Thailand, March 5, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Section 44 in the regime’s 2014 constitution gives Prayut “the powers to make any order” to maintain security, stop threats to “national economics,” and control other situations “inside or outside” Thailand.

Prayut led a bloodless, democracy-suspending coup in mid-2014 and, under Section 44, his absolute powers overrule “legislative, executive or judicial” branches of government.

His tackling of marijuana-related patents came after Thais voiced fears of being blocked from local research and losing potential massive profits.

The Department of Intellectual Property has received patent applications from foreign companies for THC-derived products which could be made or sold in Thailand, and the department is considering how to proceed.

Prayut indicated careful study is required so his solution does not infringe on local or international laws.

The Thai Patent Act of 1979 forbids patents on “animals, plants or extracts from animals or plants,” including “extracts from animals or plants that have not undergone any man-made substantial processing.”

A marijuana leaf in a file photo. Image: iStock

Patent attorney San Chaithiraphant said, “In the case of cannabis, this means that the cannabis plant, including its stem, flower, leaf and crude extracts, is not patentable.

“If a human brings a natural thing to be processed by technical means, and produces results and benefits that are not found in the natural state of that thing, then that processed natural thing may be patented,” San wrote in an analysis published on November 22.

Only marijuana’s “use” can be patented, not its substances, San said. “We will then cultivate the plant…so Thai people can have affordable access to good medicine,” said GPO director Withoon Danwiboon.

Inexpensive medical care is a winning political issue among Thais, and medical marijuana legalization is hugely popular, according to published polls.

Health officials want to experiment with extracts to treat nausea, neuropathy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, severe pain and other dire conditions.

The Public Health Ministry and the Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine want to test marijuana’s abilities in scores of formulas which date back hundreds of years and include boiling the plant or distilling it in alcohol and mixing it with other herbs.

A marijuana farm at an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP

“This does not mean people are allowed to grow marijuana in the backyards,” warned government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta on November 13. “It will still be under control.”

Officials hope to use huge caches of seized illegal marijuana no longer needed as evidence instead of having to grow their own.

Illegal crops, however, have been found to be tainted, so the government needs to plant and harvest marijuana in controlled environments.

“We have to prevent marijuana from being contaminated by chemicals or insecticides,” said Narcotics Control Board secretary general Niyom Toemsisuk.

During the 1960s and 70s, American hippies and other smokers described powerful Thai-grown marijuana as “Thai Sticks” because a small amount was illegally sold skewered on a slender, pencil-long, wooden stick the way grilled street food is offered here.

Marijuana is still illegal with long prison sentences meted out for possession, sales and smuggling.

Non-medical ‘Thai Stick’ marijuana use. Photo: Facebook

Nevertheless, Thailand is the site of weed-infused monthly Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, where thousands of mostly young foreign tourists drink buckets of beer, smoke Thai grass or drop ecstasy pills and dance until dawn on the island’s beach.

At some hip entertainment venues where tobacco is allowed outside, marijuana’s scent occasionally mingles in the air. Elsewhere, bikini-clad bar girls sometimes invite foreign customers to smoke upstairs with them in bars’ darkened cubicles for spaced-out trysts.

In winding backstreets, impoverished workers wearing ragged clothes sometimes share a smoke while waiting to hoist heavy sacks of rice or pull carts laden with construction debris.

The majority of Thais obey drug laws, but their cultural interests are changing, influenced by hip-hop, Hollywood and the Internet.

For example, relatively rich Thais buy expensive tickets to rural outdoor music festivals where Thai rock groups perform for a few days amid tie-dye fashions, peace signs, psychedelic posters and other nostalgic hippie themes.

A joint with a view of a Thai beach. Image: Facebook

In Bangkok, long-haired, tattooed Thais joined a November rally for legalization, holding signs which included in broken English: “Cannabis change world!”

Thai media occasionally flashes a marijuana leaf or an inside trippy joke in advertisements, news headlines and other surprising places.

In villages, cooks sometimes mix loose, dried weed into spicy Thai soups if a familiar customer asks for something to relieve a headache or other pains.

While many people hope recreational use will soon be legal, that may take years.

“This is not the time to allow people to smoke pot and laugh all day,” Prayut said on October 31, rejecting immediate total legalization for what Thais call “ganja.”

But disappointed enthusiasts say recreational use would profit the country by attracting more international tourists who could get high and enjoy Thailand’s gorgeous beaches, exquisite cuisine, sensual spas, sexy nightlife and other hedonistic thrills.

Richard S Ehrlich is an American, Bangkok-based correspondent, reporting news from Asia since 1978.