Thailand Is About to Legalize Medical Marijuana and It Could Change Everything

Thailand is on the verge of becoming the first country in Asia to legalize medical marijuana, with some advocates saying that nationwide legalization for recreational use might not be far behind.

It would be a landmark decision in a part of the world with some of the harshest drug laws on Earth. Thailand has the largest prison population in Southeast Asia, and the sixth-largest in the world. Inmates convicted of minor drug offenses make up the largest percentage of that population, and only 15 years ago, the country embarked on its own Duterte-style war on drugs that left hundreds of alleged drug dealers dead—including several weed dealers.

Yet, marijuana also has a long history in Thailand, according to experts like Kitty Chopaka, chief marketing officer for the pro-legalization group the Highland Network. 

“Marijuana has always been a part of Thailand’s culture,” Kitty told me. “For centuries, farmers would go out to the field, they would use Kratom, by chewing the Kratom leaves. Then they’d go home and smoke a bong. They’d smoke so that they could eat, relax, and then go to sleep. And then do the same thing all over again.” 

But regionally, the battle to legalize certain drugs is moving in the other direction. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial crackdown has left more than 12,000 dead, most of them gunned down in a wave of extrajudicial killings that spiked once Duterte took office. 

In Malaysia, a 29-year-old man was recently sentenced to death by hangingfor selling cannabis oil for medical use on Facebook (although the case is now under review). And here in Indonesia, Duterte’s brutal policies found a favorable audience. Indonesian police have killed around 100 suspected drug dealers, some of them caught with as little as 10 grams.

If you need an image of how things are different today picture this: In the past Thai police would burn marijuana, and other drugs, confiscated during busts in a massive bonfire each year. But last month, the police handed over 100 kilograms of marijuana to medical researchers to use in their studies instead. That’s how much things have changed. 

So, what’s different about Thailand today? For Dr. Somyot Kittimunkong the answer is as clear as life and death. Somyot has been on the front lines of the fight to legalize medical marijuana in Thailand for years, arguing that there is evidence that the plant can be used to treat diseases like Parkinson’s and certain kinds of cancer. And he’s not alone. 

“I’ve seen it a lot,” Somyot, 53, told me. “I’ve seen doctors, a judge, and even high-level [government] ministers use cannabis oil to treat cancer. It’s soldiers, police, and many, many more. I think in every occupation you can imagine, you’ll find people using cannabis oil in Thailand as a treatment of their cancer.”


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