Legalization of marijuana in Thailand: possibility or just wishful thinking

We have surveyed the concept of ‘marijuana legalization’ from its status as a narcotic that must be suppressed to a medication. We have talked to representatives from the state sector and civil society about the possibility of legalizing marijuana in Thailand, who would gain and who would lose. And we have listened to the opinions from those for whom marijuana is not used to get high, but is important for their lives.
 

War in which all humanity loses together. 

 
In 2003, Thailand declared a War on Drugs under the leadership of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The war resulted in the deaths of 2,873 people in one year. Prisoners related to drugs cases soared to more than 100,000 a year. Unfortunately, those people were only drug retailers, children transporting drugs or workers using drugs to help them work. In few cases did we see major drug dealers being brought to justice. This war on drugs has consequences today.  Information from the Department of Corrections reveals that in 2015, there were 214,144 inmates as a result of drugs-related cases out of a total of 310,399. Also Thailand has the highest number of female inmates in the world, 80% of whom are convicted for drugs offences. 
 
But the world formally raised the white flag against drugs in 2016 when Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General who had pushed for the war on drugs in the international arena, personally admitted that ‘a world without drugs is just an illusion’ and also said ‘the war against drugs is a war against people’. At the UN Special Session of the General Assembly on Drugs (UNGASS 2016), the world agreed that the suppression approach had failed completely and regulatory approach should be used instead. 
 
Thailand has adopted the approach of UNGASS 2016. After the meeting, Gen Paiboon Khumchaya, a former Minister of Justice, announced that he would push for methamphetamines, marijuana and krathom (mitragyna speciosa) to be taken off the list of drugs in Thailand. The Department of Medical Services, the Ministry of Public Health and civil society responded to the approach in the same way. However, this approach has the basic goal of reducing the number of drug inmates which appears to be aimed at reducing the burden to the state rather than developing the overall quality of life the people.
 
This mind-set makes the Thai state prioritize methamphetamine abuse since this has the highest number of inmates compared to other substances. It is considered that if methamphetamines could be taken off the drugs list, the penalties for other drugs will soon be reduced. This phenomenon, apart from making the marijuana fraternity wait indefinitely, means that the difficulties in the lives of many people will not be resolved. who use marijuana for pleasure or for medical purpose has become difficult. These difficulties do not arise from smoking marijuana and being arrested by the police but refer to the lives of a large number of sick people who rely on the medicinal benefits of marijuana.
 
Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General who had pushed for the war on drugs in the international arena, personally admitted that ‘a world without drugs is just an illusion’ and also said ‘the war against drugs is a war against people’.

When the law is more important than a life

 
Banthun Niyamapha or ‘Uncle Tu’, lives in a small house in the Phutthamonthon area. From the outside, no one could tell that this house is where Uncle Tu produces oil extracted from local medicinal herbs to save many lives. At the same time, it is also a source of marijuana, a category 5 drug according to the 1979 Narcotics Act of the Kingdom of Thailand. 
 
Uncle Tu has made oil extracted from marijuana for more than two years, relying on information from a book ‘Marijuana is a cure for cancer’ by Doctor Somyot Kittimankhong. When you enter the house, you will see tens of jars containing black liquid from marijuana packed in rows on tables. Uncle Tu told us that they contained marijuana that had been soaked in ethyl alcohol for three hours. After that, you get tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at 60% concentration. Apart from the intoxicating effect that marijuana users are attracted to, there are also medicinal properties for many diseases including Parkinson’s, cancer, epilepsy etc. 
 
Uncle Tu told Prachatai that many people asked him for the oil extract every day and most are cancer or epilepsy patients. He teaches them how to extract the oil and gives each visitor a young marijuana plant in a pot from behind the house that they can use to extract the oil themselves at home. If the patient has financial difficulties, Uncle Tu is happy to give the oil for free in exchange for a constant report on the treatment to him via the Line application for his future benefit.
 
 
Uncle Tu demonstrates how to extract oil from marijuana 
 
“Is this deceiving people?” may be a question that comes to mind when we hear stories about the properties of Uncle Tu’s marijuana oil extract because it may sound like a universal potion or multipurpose cosmetic cream which we have seen consumers make complaints to the media about. So it is better to hear from the consumers themselves. 
 
Piyamat Lekdaeng, is a 40-year-old street vendor and mother of an 8-year-old named Nano who has had cerebral palsy since she was 29 days old and has been unable to take care of herself. Due to the cerebral palsy, her sensory nervous system has not been fully developed. She has problems with her vision and has epilepsy which is an obstacle to her getting physical therapy. 
 
Piyamas has been continuously taking Nano to hospital for acupuncture and physical therapy, but these have not given satisfactory results. She then happened upon a Facebook page called 420 Thailand which gave information on the properties of medical marijuana. She became interested and finally decided to take Nano to be treated by Uncle Tu. 
 
Nano has been using marijuana oil extract for 7 months by having it dropped under her tongue twice a day before breakfast and dinner. Piyamas revealed that Nano’s condition has constantly improved. Her convulsions have been reduced, allowing her to receive physical therapy more easily. But the best result is that Nano ‘is in a better mood’ which is most important for people with cerebral palsy as stress can easily cause convulsions. From Nano not being able to do anything other than just lie down, she has begun to try to get up and begun to observe her mother more. 
 
“When I walked past her, she did not see me at all. Now she starts to look at me, so I think that if we keep using the oil, her brain should improve. If her brain works better, anything may follow. Every day she wants to sit up, although she cannot do it on her own. Still, it is different from the past when she only lay down. Now she smiles and laugh and is in a good mood,” said Piyamat.
 
Gaemhom’s case is the same. She has had cerebral palsy from birth due to toxemia in pregnancy. As a result, she has little cerebral tissue and often experiences convulsions. Her mother, Sasinan Sithong, 32-year-old, sells street food. She told us that Gaemhom has had convulsions so severe that her hip was dislocated and she had to undergo surgery seven times. Each time, Sasinan had to spend a lot of money on morphine, costing 500 baht per dose, to reduce the pain. Consequently, she has become addicted to morphine which caused the same dysentery as with drug addicts. The marijuana oil extract means that Sasinan could reduce some of her expenses as THC has a pain-killing effect and can be used instead of morphine but with many fewer side effects.   
 
Nano’s symptoms are much less severe than Gaemhom’s. Apart from the fact that Gaemhom has vision problems like Nano, she also has many complications including acid reflux, sinusitis and pneumonia.  And when she is stressed, Gaemhom has convulsions and hurt herself by pulling her hair or punching herself.  These problems mean that Sasinan cannot stay at work because she has to get back to check on Gaemhom every half hour.
 
After using the marijuana oil, Gaemhom no longer has pneumonia. The convulsions and self-harm from stress are also reduced. Her muscles have become more relaxed, she has started interacting with her surroundings and can watch TV. As a result, Sasinan can work 2-3 hours continuously without having to worry about her daughter. Also their expenses are less for nebulizers, an oxygen concentrator and a phlegm suction pump. 
 
“From Gaemhom not being able to move her legs and having to have her legs straightened or crossed, she can now move herself as if she is cycling in the air. She has started talking to me. From being unable to see from both eyes, now she has started watching TV. She has begun to react to things around her. The marijuana oil helps relax her brain. She is not tense, and has no complications.  She acknowledges what I say and 
 
“It is painful for me as a mother.  I suffer to see my child in this condition. I am afraid of what will happen to her. Marijuana oil is good for child and mother. I am very well aware that she cannot be cured but I just want her to live with me happily as long as possible. If she goes, I want her to go peacefully”, Sasinan added. 
 
Apart from helping the lives of the sick, Uncle Tu’s marijuana oil can be said to have a good effect on the lives of their caregivers. If we use the language of marijuana users, they may say that it is ‘really good stuff’. However, we must not forget that the marijuana that Uncle Tu extracts his oil from is in compressed bricks like we usually see village headmen in the provinces pile up to be burned in the middle of a field. This marijuana is not planted to be used for medical purposes and is contaminated with chemicals that are dangerous to the user, such as pesticides.
 
These problems are the reason why Sasinan and Piyamat believe that the state should allow marijuana to be a plant that can be legally grown and should give people the opportunity to extract the oil for their own use in the home. They also call on society to change its attitude towards marijuana. 
 
“It will be great if everyone has the opportunity to receive treatment, for someone to extract the oil for us or teach us how to do it. We can look after ourselves OK. The oil is better than modern medications which affect the liver, or antibiotics. For some medication we have to pay 80,000 baht ourselves. The government has never supported us. We have to take care of ourselves,” stated Sasinan.
 
“I want society to accept that marijuana is a medicinal herbal because it can treat many illnesses. It’s like Thailand these days closes its ears and its eyes and does not accept its benefits. We must learn how to plant it ourselves and do it ourselves.”, said Piyamat.
 
Dr Somyot Kittimankhong, a doctor specializing in cancer cells and author of ‘Marijuana is a Cure for Cancer’ stated that Thailand had the potential to develop into a regional medical hub for marijuana and marijuana has the potential to become a new economic crop for the country as Thailand has strong sunlight which has a good effect on the amount of THC in marijuana. 
 
“Western countries do not have the sunlight. They have to use light bulbs to grow marijuana. They did research on light bulbs and which length of light waves yielded how much THC. They had to do that research but it’s not necessary in Thailand because we can produce all the light frequencies that the plants need. Our sunlight is enough. Ours is the best in the world” said Dr. Somyot. 
 
 
A marijuana farm in Colorado with modern technology today allows many marijuana species to be planted in the same place. (Image from the Gazette)
 
Dr. Somyot believes that a medical marijuana industry will create a lot of capital for Thailand since nowadays, if patients want to receive treatment with marijuana, they need to travel to Europe or the US where the cost of living is very high compared to Thailand. So if medical use of marijuana is allowed, more patients from Asia will come to the country which will greatly improve the lives of Thai farmers by leaps and bounds. 
 
“In other countries, oil extracted from six marijuana plants by villagers’ methods could make 100,000 baht. If we reduce the price by half, we could still make tens of thousands of baht. What kind of plant can you grow to make this much money? Rice? That is impossible.” Dr Somyot added. 

Reduce the burden and increase income for government

 
During the past year, pro-marijuana groups in Thailand hoped that marijuana will soon be legalized because apart from the firm attitude of the Minister of Justice, Thailand was revising the Narcotics Act. This process began with a proposal from the Law Reform Commission at the beginning of 2015 and a Cabinet resolution approved it in April 2016. At present, the draft is with the Council of State before it is to be submitted to the Prime Ministerand then be sent to the King for royal endorsement and publication in the Royal Gazette. It is anticipated that the law will enter into force next year before the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), leaves office. 
 
Dr. Apichai Mongkol, Director-General of the Department of Medical Sciences, told Prachatai that the reason they had to finish the process while the NCPO was in power was because an elected government would not agree to do it deal because it may affect their popularity. But in practice, this policy is something that should have been done long ago as the current law on drugs is inflexible and carries heavy penalties. As a consequence, many people lose their freedom just for using or possessing small amounts of drugs.
 
“This government has only one year left and governments in general do not deal with this issue as it affects their popularity” added Dr. Apichai.
 
There is one case study that anyone who works on drugs policy in Thailand needs to know. It concerns a Thai woman who crossed the border to Lao for a shopping trip and took two tablets of methamphetamine with her. Once she arrived in Lao, she took half a tablet to keep her awake. She brought one and a half tablets back with her to Thailand. However, she was searched by the police at a border checkpoint and they found the drugs. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison for importing a narcotic drug into the country, a penalty that cannot be reduced.
 
“We have found that increasing the penalty and changing the category of a drug to make it a narcotic carrying penalties does not have a positive effect. The price rises and more people want to get into selling it. We only come back to the same point as in 1996. Back then it was not a problem. There were very few inmates from methamphetamine cases. Women’s prisons then were also small because there were very few inmates. So we two [the ministries of Justice and Public Health] have agreed that we will not let drug users receive criminal sentences,” Dr. Apichai explained. 
 
 
Both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Public Health have concurred that punishment for drug cases shall be reduced and we should start with methamphetamine cases. They have also agreed that drug users should be divided into two categories -- ‘users’ and ‘addicts’. Drug users are those who occasionally use drugs or use them at the level that does not disturb their normal life. They shall not be punished; however, they should see a doctor from time to time. Those who are addicted to drugs will be under the care of the Ministry of Public Health rather than in prison. 
 
“In the past, drug addicts were sent to military camps for training in discipline which does not serve the purpose. From now on, we will send them for the Ministry of Public Health to take care of them and coordinate with the Ministry of Interior and other relevant ministries. We will categorize drug users. Their number at present is really too high that the Ministry of Public Health cannot handle them. Only ten percent really need treatment. We should seek ways of taking care of them which are right for them and rehabilitate them in their jobs so they can return to society. These are things that we are advocating,” Apichai said. 
 
In addition to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Public Health, the agencies directly related to this issue, other relevant government agencies have responded positively to the reduction in penalties.
 
Prapat Panyachatraksa, Chair of the National Farmers Council stated that the Council were considering the promotion of kratom and marijuana cultivation by farmers nationwide for economic purpose and household use because the plants were formerly categorized as Thai traditional herbs. Legalizing these plants would lead to medical research which will reduce healthcare costs and create income for farmers. 
 
“We will propose that the state allow the use of medical marijuana if prescribed by doctors, research and the establishment of plantations to grow marijuana and extract the oil. A Canadian investor once discussed with me privately that if the Thai government legalizes marijuana, he offered to buy the oil extract for 12,000 baht. In the US, 10 cc of marijuana oil costs 1,500 US dollars which is equivalent to tens of thousands of baht. One marijuana plant costs 1,500 baht. Thailand could use the income from this investment for many other things.”, said Prapat.
 
 
Public forum “Marijuana saves the Nation” held by the National Farmers Council on 22 August 2016 (Image from ThaiPBS)

Great goal but problematic approach

 
The agreement among state agencies has raised the hopes of pro-marijuana groups a little. It makes them feel that when the law comes into effect, they can smoke marijuana more freely. But this is not something that will happen soon. 
 
Veeraphan Ngammee, secretariat of the Ozone Foundation, an organization advocating harm reduction from drug abuse, had an opportunity as a representative of civil society to join the process of amending the Narcotics Act. He stated that the amendment began with good intention of separating drug abusers into testers, users and addicts. Each category needs a different approach. The amended bill will also integrate many current overlapping drug laws into one. It also allows the court to exercise its discretion to adjust the punishment appropriately.
 
But during the drafting process, this intention was not properly translated into practice. 
 
“Drug users remain criminals under this draft although in fact, we should not look at them that way. The drafters still could not overcome this perception, and if they can’t, I fear it will go back in the same direction. It is a shame since we had such a great start but in the end we could not move beyond this,” Veeraphan explained.
 
“Not all drug users are sick. Occasional users who are not addicted or dependent should not be considered as sick. Their behaviour is merely a risk to their health in the same way as smokers or alcohol drinkers” Veeraphan said.
 
 
Veeraphan Ngammee (Image from Matichon Online)
 
According to Veeraphan’s analysis, the obstacle is that most officials involved in the drafting process were government agencies with an interest in policies of drug suppression. They came from the Ministry of Justice, the Narcotics Control Board or Ministry of Public Health. Changing policy direction would directly affect the resources and budgets that these agencies receive. 
 
“At the moment, the criminal justice system uses enormous resources to deal with drugs. This budget needs reviewing. Some agencies may receive less money and play a smaller role. The people who were involved in designing the law have a direct interest in the policies that will emerge. I think this is not right.” 
 
“People in society are not ready” has always been the excuse to maintain the same penalties for drug abusers. Veeraphan considered that this excuse was used to shift the blame to the people and overlooked the role of government agencies in reproducing lame thinking and a fearful image of drugs. These are the main reasons why until today ‘people in society are not ready.’
 
“I ask whether society cannot accept it or whether you are not ready to explain it to society, or whether you disagree with the change. Many officials still favour using authority and the law to deal with the problem. They favour strict methods. In their hearts, they just don’t want to change. But society is claimed to be not ready.
 
“It is better not to shift the blame onto the people. What information have the agencies watching this issue given to the people? What kind of options have they proposed to society? Today, you have to change but you are afraid to say that you were wrong. I say it is interesting to ask if people do not really accept it or if the obstacle is with the people who work in the government sector.” Veeraphan added. 
 
On the surface, it may sound like a one-sided accusation against government agencies. But if we take into consideration the budget for drug work of those agencies involved in drafting the law, we find that the 2016 budget allocates more than 4,000 million baht to the Ministry of Justice for “work on prevention, suppression and rehabilitation of drug abusers,” which is 20 percent of the total MOJ budget. Of that amount, 2,500 million baht belongs to the Narcotics Control Board. The Ministry of Public Health receives 1,300 million baht budget for the same area of work. So if the number of people prosecuted or narcotics-related cases decreases, those budgets will be reduced as well. 
 
Apart from government agencies, low-ranking officers also share an interest in drug policies. A clear example is the Regulation of the Office of the Prime Minister on Bribery Money and Prize Money for Drug Cases 1994 which specifies remuneration rates for government officials for prosecuting and sending drug abusers to rehabilitation, where officials receive 360 baht for each case. This is a motivation for officers to arrest whoever violates the drugs laws without considering whether or not those people really need rehabilitation. 
 
General Paiboon once announced the cancellation of the policy on remuneration. But this has not been concretely enforced. Even though the policy has been cancelled, as long as drugs are illegal, marijuana users will probably be taken advantage of by government officials. 
 
Tam (pseudonym), a 23-year-old, revealed that officials twice asked him for bribes because he used marijuana. He was stopped at a police checkpoint after he went to a party at his friend’s house. The money he paid would not be used for public benefit. 
 
“The first time, they asked for 5,000 baht. The second time I paid 3,000 baht. Of course, I did not want to pay. I knew it would go into the pockets of the police. But I did not know the law. I did not know how heavy the penalty is and whether I would have to go to jail. At that moment, I only thought that a few thousand baht could buy my freedom. I wanted the thing to be over, so I paid.” 
 
Even after the government started announcing that they would cancel punishment for drug cases, the behaviour of officials does not seem to have changed.
 
“The other day, I met an old guy in front of my house. He came to warn me that the police had smelled marijuana from my house and told me to be watch out. I was very scared. I rushed home to get rid of my stuff. But I did not really understand what I had done wrong. I smoke at my place and don’t bother anyone. I don’t create a disturbance for anyone. I just smoke and go to sleep with a smile. I am happy by myself. It is kind of sad that just by smoking, I become a criminal.” Tam said.
 
The path to the legalization of marijuana is clearly not strewn with rose petals. A conflict of interest for government agencies, raising public awareness and changing the attitude of government officials are still big issues that Thailand has to solve. We do not know how long it will take to legalize marijuana in Thailand. But what we know now is that if we go slowly, we will steadily lose the economic benefits of a marijuana industry, in the lives of many patients, and the liberties of free people who have done nothing wrong other than ‘smoking grass for their own happiness’.