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Border patrol police show off their haul of confiscated marijuana Jan. 23, 2017, in Nakhon Phanom province. Source: Khaosod English

Thai parliament legalises marijuana for medicinal purposes as a “New Year’s gift” to the people

While many South-east Asian nations are known for having strict laws against drug use and possession, Thailand has decided to approve the use of marijuana for medical and research purposes on Tuesday (25 Dec), which marks the first instance in which the use of a recreational drug is legalised in the region.

Thailand's history of marijuana use for medicinal purposes dates back to the 1930s, and it was primarily prescribed for the relief of pain and fatigue.

Chairman of the drafting committee Somchai Sawangkarn announced in a televised parliamentary session that the Parliamentary vote to amend the Narcotic Act of 1979 "is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people".

Reuters, however, reported that the controversies surrounding the patent requests made by foreign companies have not died down, citing fears of a monopoly on the Thai pharmaceutical market that will potentially make it more difficult for Thai patients to access marijuana-related medicine as well as for Thai researchers to study extracts of marijuana strains.

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

Highland Network – a Thai cannabis legalization advocacy group – activist Chokwan Chopaka said to Reuters that the legalisation of medical marijuana "is the first baby step forward" that will potentially pave the way to legalisation of the drug for recreational purposes.

Meanwhile, persons found guilty for certain drug-related offences – particularly drug trafficking – will most likely face execution under death penalty sentencing in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

However, following the series of executions by the state in 2018 - most notably that of Malaysian Prabu N Pathmanathan who was convicted for drug trafficking - and backlash from human rights organisations, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) revealed its plans last month to conduct a survey between Oct and this month to study the Singaporean consensus regarding the death penalty.

This year alone, Singapore has executed eight persons under death penalty laws in relation to drug trafficking, and the government's staunch retentionist stance regarding the death penalty sentence has often been repeated in the past by Law Minister K Shanmugam on various occasions, citing the death penalty as an effective deterrent against drug trafficking and several other drug-related offences.

National Research Foundation to conduct study on developing synthetic cannabis for medicinal purposes despite Government's view of "scant evidence of the safety and efficacy of long-term cannabis use"

The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) also upheld the same hard stance on the use of recreational drugs, and warned that Singaporeans and permanent residents of the Republic who are found to have engaged in the misuse of such drugs abroad will be dealt with in the same way as those who have done so in Singapore.

In Oct, the bureau had firmly stated that there is "scant evidence of the safety and efficacy of long-term cannabis use".

Additionally, CNB cited a literature review conducted by Singapore's own Institute of Mental Health, which "affirmed the addictive and harmful nature of cannabis" and illustrated the damage that it can cause to the brain with long-term use.

"These findings corroborate our position that cannabis should remain an illicit drug," CNB concluded.

Despite the longstanding hardline stance of the Singapore government against the use of marijuana, a research project aiming to study and develop synthetic cannabis for medicinal purposes was announced by the National Research Foundation (NRF) under the National University of Singapore (NUS) in Sep.

The Synthetic Biology Research and Development (R&D) Programme will "explore novel biosynthetic pathways for the sustainable and proprietary production of national strains of medicinal cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant for therapeutics that could be used to treat a range of diseases, such as those related to metabolism or reproduction, or age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s".

Cannabinoids include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive element of weed) and cannabidiol (CBD, which is used for pain relief and produces no high).

In a media release by NUS, it was stated that the research on developing synthetic medicinal cannabis "will be done by translating selective genetic information provided by overseas partners into potent therapeutic compounds not found in nature through synthetic biology."

The project will cost S$25mil over the next five years, and one of the four projects selected to receive a research grant is a project by Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan from SynCTI.Given the Government's view that the benefits of cannabis are at best marginal, it is interesting to note that a public university in Singapore would carry out a multi-million dollar research project investigating the benefits of cannabis, even for medicinal purposes.