Thailand is set to become the first Asian country to legalize medical marijuana, but a battle is brewing between local and foreign firms over control of a potentially lucrative market.
With parliament set to soon approve the legislation, Thai businesses and activists have raised concerns that a raft of patent requests filed by foreign firms could allow them to dominate the market and make it harder for researchers to access marijuana extracts. “Granting these patents is scary because it blocks innovation and stops other businesses and researchers from doing anything related with cannabis,” said Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, an activist with Highlands Network, a cannabis legalization advocacy group in Thailand. “We were very shocked to see this because it would be like allowing them to patent water and its uses,” Chokwan said, adding that applicants are seeking patents for plantrelated substances, which are not allowed under Thai law.
Thailand’s move to allow the use of marijuana for medical and research purposes follows a wave of legalisation across the globe, including in Colombia, Israel, Denmark, Britain and certain U.S. states. Uruguay and Canada have gone one step further and also legalized recreational use. Thailand’s neighbors Malaysia and Singapore are in the early stages of debating whether to legalize medical marijuana, but it is a sensitive issue because the drug remains illegal and taboo across much of Southeast Asia. Among a handful of foreign companies that are looking to enter the Thai market are British giant GW Pharmaceuticals and Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical, which have jointly applied for marijuana-related patents. Thais used marijuana in traditional medicine for centuries before it was banned in 1934. Farmers were known to use it as a muscle relaxer after a day in the fields and it was reportedly used to ease womens’ labor pains. In fact, the word ‘bong’, which describes a water pipe often used to smoke weed, comes from the Thai language.
Experts say Thailand, already a regional hub for medical tourism, has a combination of factors working in favor of legalization, including a tropical climate that could allow for cheaper production of marijuana than, for instance, in Canada. The government earlier this year rejected calls to decriminalise recreational use of the drug. Instead, the new law will reclassify marijuana as a narcotic whose extracts can be used in traditional Thai medicine, and to treat drugresistant epilepsy and pain and nausea in cancer patients.
Research will be permitted into the use of marijuana to treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr. Sophorn Mekthon, chairman of the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation. “What is most important in the whole debate is the accessibility of medical marijuana to patients,” he said.