Still unwilling to allow the public to get zonked or profit from recreational marijuana, Thailand has instead produced its first pharmaceutical THC and CBD oils, tablets, oral sprays, chocolate wafers and traditional potions after recently legalizing medical cannabis.
This first line of weed-based products puts Thailand on the cutting edge of Southeast Asia’s nascent legal marijuana industry, a potentially lucrative first mover advantage if allowed to flourish at the nation’s agrarian grass roots.
If recreational marijuana is eventually legalized and freely grown, it would create new profit opportunities for Thai farmers at home and abroad, possibly bigger than traditional rice, sugar cane and tapioca crops.
The Thai government organized a visit for journalists on August 2 to Rangsit University’s new, sparsely equipped Medical Cannabis Research Institute in the College of Pharmacy to proudly display their first locally made marijuana products.
University staff unlocked a gray metal safe and revealed 40 kilograms of dried marijuana confiscated by police during drug busts. Each rectangular kilo of “cannabis raw material” was hard-pressed and wrapped in clear plastic.
A few months ago, officials said confiscated marijuana was useless for medical purposes because it was often contaminated with insecticide, fertilizer, heavy metals or fungus.
Researchers, however, quickly realized they had to use illegal weed because Thailand was unable to quickly grow enough marijuana under strict purity controls to start making the medical products.
“If some samples are contaminated, we will not use it,” a researcher told the assembled reporters.
They also displayed a “subcritical solvent extractor” and a “butane extraction” machine, both invented by Thais, to pull tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) from the marijuana.
If existing drug laws are eventually relaxed, impoverished Thai villagers could collectively buy the refrigerator-sized extractors and profit from what is expected to be booming demand, they said.
The extractors produced the university’s first “controlled drug” sesame-based cannabis oils.
One tiny 15-milliliter bottle included 500 milligrams of THC and 100 milligrams of CBD, enough for 600 drops. Two drops a day are to be placed under the tongue, the researchers said.
“This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition or any disease,” and has “not been evaluated by the (Thai) Food and Drug Administration,” the label said.
University researchers have also injected THC and CBD into pink, swollen tumors induced in live mice to determine if cannabis inhibits cancer growth.
Other healthy mice, under the influence, explored chambers to determine if cannabis reduces anxiety and provides other medical benefits.
In one test, they put a mouse into a chamber which had 16 holes in the floor. Inquisitive drugged mice explored more holes in three minutes compared with shy sober mice, indicating “anti-anxiety activity”, the researchers said.
The university’s small, sunny rooftop garden displayed 72 leafy marijuana plants in various stages of growth. A glass house encased 36 plants fed by “root spa” watering, while the other 36 stood outdoors to absorb “drip” watering.
“We grow without any chemicals. No pesticides. No chemical fertilizer,” a grower said. The plants sprouted from seeds of unknown origin, recovered from confiscated crops.
“We don’t know if they got the seeds from Thailand or from a neighboring country,” researcher Orapan Hussarang said. “We don’t know exactly,” what plant strains are growing. “It’s just unknown,” she said.
“After we get the bud, we are going to give it to the pharmacy. They will check how much THC and CBD.”
Some Thai labs imported documented seeds from the Netherlands or elsewhere, Orapan said. Rangsit University researchers also displayed its cannabis oils which include herbal ingredients used in Thai cuisine and tonics.
“These [oils] are used when your body is feeling too warm, or if you have extreme weight loss from disease, or to promote sleep,” researcher Somporn Phonkrathok said.
Stomach bloating, stress disorders, pain and other problems can also be treated with the elixirs. Some can be massaged into the skin.
Researchers are using Thailand’s centuries-old recipes gathered from rural traditional healers who have been discreetly treating villagers with illegal marijuana-laced concoctions.
The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) and a handful of other facilities are also growing and producing small amounts of marijuana for medical use, but nowhere near the amount that is likely needed.
The GPO delivered 4,500 tiny bottles of its oils to the Health Ministry on August 7 for final-stage cancer victims and recently planted an additional 20,000 plants.
Researchers have not been able to make enough doses because the government demands most marijuana research and production be conducted in Thailand, which lacks qualified staff and large-scale cannabis growing facilities.
Officials are loathe to import large quantities of foreign medical cannabis because it could flood Thailand’s nascent market and grab profits from government organizations and licensed facilities.
As a result, tens of thousands of Thai patients are stuck waiting for hospitals and traditional medical practitioners to prescribe and distribute made-in-Thailand cannabis medicine.
Marijuana cannot be grown, produced or sold in Thailand except for medical use with permission from the government which can also import and export medical cannabis products.
“How can we produce enough cannabis-based medicines when there are only a few places authorized to grow the plant?” said Daycha Siripatra, who distributes free marijuana oil to cancer patients.
Daycha’s manufacturing and distribution was illegal under local law but his 40,000 patients and other supporters resisted recent moves to shut it down. As a result, he was accredited by the Health Department in April and the government is issuing him a license to continue.
His “Daycha Oil”, however, must be produced in cooperation with the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine, which reportedly will allow him to distribute 25% of his produced oil each month.
Patients qualify only if they suffer severe illnesses listed by the Health Ministry and agree to undergo studies by Chulalongkorn University’s Pharmaceutical Science faculty to determine efficacy and side effects.
“That will force users and medical practitioners to rely on authorized suppliers, who can manipulate the price,” Daycha warned.
To boost supplies, the GPO plans to import some CBD oil from abroad until Thailand produces enough.
“Most Thai marijuana strains contain more THC than CBD, which makes it more suitable for recreational use,” GPO Director Withoon Danwiboon said.
After recent parliamentary elections, the modest-sized Bhumjaithai (Proud to be Thai) party’s leader Anutin Charnvirakul was appointed health minister and deputy prime minister in the ruling coalition.
Anutin campaigned to legalize recreational marijuana and to allow farmers to grow the weed for government sales, but too few other officials agree with the policy.
“We would like to provide medical tour packages, such as detox, Thai massage and other wellness courses that use marijuana,” said Tourism Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan, who belongs to Anutin’s party.
During the August 7 delivery of the GPO’s medical cannabis oil to the Health Ministry, Anutin said: “This is the outcome of legalizing medical cannabis. There is no hidden agenda. We only want to support every patient.”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.