Saturday, 8 June 2019

Thailand cautiously reopens door to cannabis

Medical cannabis legal, but supply limited by rule that only govt-linked entities can grow it
By Tan Hui Yee, Indochina Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2019

NAKHON RATCHASIMA (Thailand)• • "Would you like to try it?" the young man says when he notices me peering at the cannabis joint held between his fingers. "It's good for your health." Behind him, a dark green banner declares: "Meet People with Experience in Kancha".

It's May 18, in this small resort some four hours from Bangkok. Marijuana advocate and former policeman Buntoon Niyamabha sprinkles cannabis seeds into the palms of seminar participants. His aide warms an acrid paste of cannabis flowers and alcohol, enough to produce dozens of vials of potent essence. In the sunlit courtyard, people sip cannabis tea over conversation. No one is really worried about the police turning up.

Cannabis - variously called marijuana, ganja and weed, as well as kancha in Thai - remains classified as a narcotic under Thai law. Possessing up to 10kg of it for recreational use attracts penalties of up to five years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht (S$4,350).

South-east Asia has some of the world's harshest penalties on drugs, including capital punishment in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia for trafficking.

But Thailand's legalisation of medical cannabis in December last year has unleashed a surge of interest in an ageing society anxious to find better ways to stave off the ravages of cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as other diseases.

Malaysia reportedly started talks on the legalisation of medical cannabis late last year.

Thailand is a pioneer in South-east Asia, where strict narcotics laws continue to fill prisons with addicts and surging production of synthetic drugs has flooded black markets.

Now, the kingdom has joined a growing list of countries - including Canada, Germany and South Korea - that allow medical cannabis to be prescribed.

With more scientists stepping up, it is also poised to enter a global medical cannabis market, estimated by the Imarc research group to be worth US$13.4 billion (S$18.3 billion) last year.

A three-month amnesty period for medical cannabis users to declare themselves drew about 20,000 people to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the time it ended on May 21. Once registered patients use up their existing supply of the drug, they can rely only on approved formulas dispensed by licensed doctors and traditional medical practitioners.


But there is simply not enough, say cannabis advocates. For now, only government-linked entities or their partners are allowed to grow cannabis.

In February, the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation, a state enterprise, unveiled a 100 million baht high-security aeroponic greenhouse to cultivate medical-grade cannabis. It expects to produce cannabis drops by next month.

Meanwhile, underground networks which have long relied on illicit cannabis to make their medical potions are now constrained by official scrutiny.

Some of the loudest calls for liberalisation have come from Mr Decha Siriphat, whose Khao Kwan Foundation in Suphan Buri province was raided by police, soldiers and anti-narcotics officials in April last year for possessing cannabis material. Khao Kwan Foundation teaches rice farmers how to farm without chemicals, as well as how to collect seeds to develop new seeds of better quality.

Until the raid, Mr Decha - a respected rice researcher - had been quietly working with three Buddhist temples to give free cannabis oil and capsules to some 5,000 regular patients.

Under strong public pressure, drug officials chose not to charge Mr Decha. He was granted a licence to dispense cannabis-laced medicine, but then ran up against a bureaucratic maze: The formula he had carefully crafted over the years - a mixture of cannabis oil and cold-pressed coconut oil - had not been approved and certified by the government. Furthermore, with all his stocks seized - and his usual sources of raw material ruled out - he is now forced to turn to narcotics officials for confiscated cannabis. Some of it could be contaminated.

Before his cannabis work hit the headlines, Mr Decha's partner temples were distributing the medicine to 1,200 people a day, he estimates.

"Under these new rules, I probably can't give it to more than 200 people a day," he tells The Straits Times from his padi field-ringed foundation. "Those who are waiting are really sick. If you make them wait for two or three years, won't they die?"

He adds: "We need to take kancha out of the list of narcotics. There is no other way." Recreational use, he says, can still be controlled through specific laws, as with tobacco and alcohol. To draw attention to this issue, he is walking 270km from northern to central Thailand with representatives from 10 other organisations.

The walk started on May 21 and is expected to end this Sunday.


Mr Decha, 71, who neither drinks nor smokes and wears a Huawei fitness tracker around his wrist, started researching and using cannabis six years ago when he was battling Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. He declares himself cured.

Just around the corner from his foundation, hundreds of people queue up at Bang Pla Mo temple in hope of bagging his last few cannabis capsules, even though a handwritten sign slung on a tent pole warns that the temple has "stopped giving medicine". As Buddhist monks chant in the background, villagers from near and far wave identity cards and describe their ailments to volunteers.

Ms Tu Chimwai, 64, waits patiently in her Sunday best. Diagnosed with advanced intestinal cancer one year ago, she refused chemotherapy and was housebound in agony until her daughter came home one day with Mr Decha's cannabis pills. The pain has subsided, she claims.

Cannabis contains cannabidiol, a chemical said to reduce seizures, and tetrahydrocannabinol, a mind-altering substance associated with the "high" experienced by users.

Much remains to be understood and proved about the long-term effects of ingesting marijuana, and what illnesses it can really cure.

FDA secretary-general Tares Krassanairawiwong, in an earlier interview with The Straits Times, warned that it cannot work on every disease.

Yet lay users tend to treat it like a panacea. At Mr Buntoon's recent seminar in north-east Thailand, participants claimed cannabis cured their insomnia, migraine, asthma, tinnitus and even skin irritation.

Mr Buntoon, who makes his own cannabis oil, introduced The Straits Times to 10-year-old cerebral palsy patient Teerakarn Srisawat. She was the first child who tried his potion. Until about five years ago, she had seizures several times a day. It robbed her of the strength to even swallow food.

Despairing after numerous hospital visits that seemed to have had no effect, her mother Piyamart Srisawat, who sells rice noodles at a local market, turned to the Internet for answers and decided to give cannabis a try.

The girl's seizures stopped and she began sleeping regularly, rather than staying awake for days on end, her mother told The Straits Times.

Before it was prohibited in the 1930s, cannabis was freely available in traditional Thai herbal remedies. Alternative medicine advocates argue that Bangkok's cautious attitude will make medical cannabis needlessly expensive.

"It used to be grown in people's backyards, put into curries and soup," says Mr Buntoon. "Now, when other countries are allowing it to be grown, why do we stop our people from making their lives better?"

The political winds are blowing in his favour. Bhumjaithai Party, which won 51 Lower House seats in the March 24 election, last Monday agreed to join pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party to form a governing coalition. Bhumjaithai foregrounded the liberalisation of cannabis cultivation in its electoral campaign and says coalition partners must accept its policy. A Bhumjaithai politician is expected to fill the post of health minister.

Meanwhile, Thai researchers are racing to secure patents that will plant their flag on the global medical marijuana market.

Rangsit University, a private institute just outside Bangkok, launched a medical cannabis research institute in April and will offer undergraduate-level courses on the subject in the coming academic year. Fourth-year students working towards a Bachelor of Technology degree could soon be helping Dr Banyat Saitthiti, dean of agricultural innovation and biotechnology, tease out the best strains of cannabis for medical use in its laboratory.

Interest has been overwhelming, says Dr Banyat. He is mulling over opening extra classes for members of the public, who have swamped him with queries. "I want to see Thailand become a centre for research on cannabis, just like it is a centre for study on rice," he says. "There is a lot of research to be done."

Strict rules on use of medical cannabis: Singapore
The Straits Times, 6 Jun 2019

The use of pharmaceutical cannabinoid products in Singapore comes under strict frameworks and regulations and does not diminish the country's zero-tolerance position against drugs, the Home Affairs and Health ministries have said. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant.

"Our drug-control policies are underpinned by evidence and research," they said in a joint statement in February, adding that Singapore must continue to stay drug-free to prevent harm to its population and society.

"Cannabis is clearly addictive and harmful, and there is no scientific evidence of the safety and efficacy of raw cannabis use," the statement said. "This supports our position that cannabis should remain an illicit drug... We will continue to allow safe and controlled access to evidence-based medical treatment options."

At a Central Narcotics Bureau's workplan seminar on May 24, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said Singapore's position is based on "practical realities, common sense and evidence". He said: "We have to operate on evidence. We have to operate on what the research shows elsewhere and not be confused by broad simplistic claims."

The authorities said it was important to differentiate between products containing unprocessed or raw cannabis, and pharmaceutical products containing cannabinoids.

These cannabinoid pharmaceuticals undergo rigorous scientific review by the Health Sciences Authority before they can be registered for supply here.

Manufacturers also need to substantiate the safety, quality and efficacy of the cannabinoid pharmaceuticals using scientific evidence from clinical studies and data on the manufacturing process.

The authorities said that, so far, there are no studies validating the claims of unprocessed or raw cannabis being able to treat medical conditions.

A 2015 literature review done by experts from Singapore's Institute of Mental Health affirmed the harmful and addictive nature of unprocessed, or raw, cannabis. It concluded that "cannabis consumption is associated with irreversible brain damage, brain shrinkage, and serious mental or psychiatric illnesses".

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