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Thailand prepares for legalization

The Kingdom of Thailand has some of the strictest anti-drug laws in the world, but it may become the first country in Asia to legalize medical marijuana, with some forecasting legalization for recreational use might not be far behind.

It is still highly speculative. Thailand has the world’s sixth-largest prison population. 15 years ago, the country embarked on its own Duterte-style war on drugs that left alleged cannabis dealers dead by the side of the road.

In past years Thai police would burn marijuana, and other drugs, confiscated during busts in a massive annual bonfire. But last month, the police handed over 100 kilograms of marijuana to medical researchers to use in their studies instead.

Provable success in fighting illness is the reason for the change of heart.

Doctors, judges, even high-level government officials have used cannabis oil to treat cancer. In cThailand, clinical trials are made impossible by laws prohibiting the growth and use of marijuana, explained Dr. Niyada Kiatying-Angsulee, the director of the Social Research Institute at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University to Vice magazine. Right now, university researchers need to receive special approval from the government to research banned substances. It’s not impossible to be granted approval—right now Niyada and her team is researching medical uses for Cannabis—but the process is hindering their work.

Use in human subjects is not allowed. Physicians are not allowed to prescribe cannabis by the current law.

Behind-the-scenes, the current military-run government is considering how to legalize medical marijuana. Lobbyists are arguing that allowing the people to grow cannabis will boost the economy. This, likely more than any actual health-related arguments, was a strong motivator for the junta government.

The Thai government relies heavily on so-called consumption taxes — taxes collected from purchased goods—to fund the state. An estimated 33 percent of state revenues came from these taxes last year, making it the single largest source of revenue.

Public perceptions about marijuana are also changing. The vast majority of Thais are now supportive of the idea of medical marijuana. A recent poll from the National Institute of Development Administration found that 72.4 percent of those surveyed supported the legalization of medical marijuana. The country’s justice minister also floated the idea of decriminalizing meth use in recent years, arguing that “the world has lost the war on drugs,” another sign that the country may be growing tired of a costly and unwinnable drug war.

“It is a positive shift from policy-making based on morality and ideology to being based on evidence,” explained Gloria Lai, the Asia regional director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. “It is likely that some other countries will follow suit, as there has been some consideration for permitting medical use of cannabis in South Korea, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines already.”

In Thailand, the government is intrigued. It sent a team of specialists to Canada to study the local marijuana industry, and the Ministry of Health seems closer than ever before to throwing its support behind the legalization efforts.

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