Thailand legalises cannabis for medicinal use as neighboring countries still impose death penalty

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Thailand has legalised cannabis for medicinal use in a region which has some of the the strictest drug laws in the world.

The Thai government passed the new legislation today approving the use of medicinal marijuana and for its use in research.

Marijuana was used in Thailand as a traditional medicine to relieve pain and fatigue, until it was banned in the 1930s. 

Using cannabis for recreational reasons will still be illegal.

While countries from Colombia to Canada as well as certain states in the U.S. have legalised marijuana for medical or even recreational use, the drug remains illegal and taboo across much of South East Asia, which has some of the world's harshest punishments for drug law violations.

Marijuana traffickers can be subject to the death penalty in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

But in Thailand, the main controversy with legalisation involved patent requests by foreign firms that could allow them to dominate the market, making it harder for Thai patients to access medicines and for Thai researchers to access marijuana extracts.

The junta-appointed parliament agreed to amend the country's drug law to allow the licensed medical use of marijuana, as well as kratom - a locally grown plant traditionally used as a stimulant and painkiller.

Thailand is the first country in South East Asia to take such action, which is also under consideration in neighbouring Malaysia. 

New Zealand's government earlier this month enacted a law liberalising the medical use of marijuana, which had previously been tightly restricted.

Somchai Sawangkarn, chairman of the drafting committee, in a televised parliamentary session, said: 'This is a New Year's gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people.'   

The law changes legalise the production, import, export, possession and use of marijuana and kratom products for medical purposes.

Purveyors, producers and researchers will need licenses to handle the drugs, while end-users will need prescriptions.

Chokwan Chopaka, an activist with Highland Network, a cannabis legalisation advocacy group in Thailand, said: 'This is the first baby step forward.'

Recreational use of the drugs remains illegal and subject to prison terms and fines commensurate with the quantities involved.

Panthep Puapongpan, Dean of the Rangsit Institute of Integrative Medicine and Anti-Aging, said: 'We're going to demand that the government revoke all these requests before the law takes effect.'

The legislation passed its final reading on Tuesday at the National Legislative Assembly by a vote of 166-0 with 13 abstentions. 

Public hearings showed overwhelming support for the measure, which amended the Narcotic Act of 1979 in an extra parliamentary session handling a rush of bills before the New Year's holidays.

The bill introducing the legislative changes had noted that recent studies have shown that marijuana extract has medicinal benefits, which has prompted 'many countries around the world to ease their laws by enacting legal amendments to allow their citizens to legally use kratom and marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes'.

It added that despite being classified as an illegal drug, many patients have used marijuana to treat their diseases. 

Earlier this year, a man in Malaysia was sentenced to death for selling cannabis oil.

Pip Holmes, 45, from Cornwall, is facing up to 15 years in an Indonesian prison after being caught with cannabis oil which he says he needed for medical reasons.

The 45-year-old claims he asked a friend to send the drug to him while he was living in Bali to help his arthritis.

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