Five years ago, long before medical cannabis became legal in Thailand, Ladda was desperate to ease her son's seizures. The longer the epilepsy episode, the more it damaged Dino’s brain and slowed his mental and physical development, she explained.
One option for her 13-year-old, who also has cerebral palsy, was cannabis oil.
“I was aware that [the] extraction of cannabis oil was illegal back then. My son had earlier been on a long term medication made of pharmaceutical chemicals, but he still suffered from seizures,” Ladda told VICE World News in a recent interview.
“A friend suggested I treat him with cannabis oil. So I researched it and took it from a person who gave away cannabis oil for children with disabilities.”
Ladda gave her son a one-drop dose. After he showed no side effects, she gave him another drop before bedtime. When he woke up the next morning, he had a seizure—the last he’s had in the years since.
“I have been giving him cannabis oil for five years now. He’s been showing improvement. He started learning and is getting better at communicating,” she said.
But despite the legalization of medical cannabis in Thailand in December 2018, Ladda has yet to obtain the product through official channels. Today the product is offered for free at state-run hospitals, but Ladda has concerns about its efficacy—and she’s not alone. Subject to strict regulation, some patients in Thailand believe the pain relieving qualities of government-sanctioned cannabis oil are not sufficient, and prefer to go underground for stronger doses when treating severe conditions.
Ed, an underground cannabis oil producer and deregulation campaigner, himself at the final stage of colon cancer, explained to VICE World News the concerns his clientele have expressed.
“When the Ministry of Public Health started giving away cannabis oil [in clinics], I was happy that patients could easily access treatment,” he said. “But when they used it, it couldn’t cure their illness. People said their formula was weak. It can’t treat serious illnesses.”
Thailand became the first Southeast Asian nation to legalize medical marijuana, with the government declaring it a ‘New Year’s gift’ for citizens on Christmas Day in 2018.
The Thai government harbours ambitions to tap into the global cannabis market, estimated to reach $48 billion by 2027. In December, it also decriminalized leaves, branches, bark fiber, root and hemp plants, allowing businesses to use these raw materials for products including food, drinks and cosmetics. Many establishments like cafes, restaurants and spas have popped up to benefit from the green rush. Despite this, Thailand’s cannabis laws remain relatively restrictive compared to other parts of the world like California, where both recreational and medical use is legal.
Cannabis oil became available at state-run hospitals in August 2019 and is provided free of charge to those eligible for government universal health care. It can be prescribed for epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis, as well as less severe conditions like stress.
However, some who receive the oil say it isn’t effective in treating their ailments. Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, is the main psychoactive substance ingredient in marijuana, producing the “high” associated with smoking while also acting as an efficient pain reliever. Under Thai law, the maximum concentration of THC is 0.2 percent. Medical dispensaries in the US have been found to regularly sell products up to 15 percent, while unregulated cannabis oil can go as high as 80 percent.
With the reduced efficacy offered by government-sanctioned cannabis oil, underground producers like Ed see it as their moral imperative to keep distributing their own products.
“What we do is illegal, but we prioritize morality above the law. The terminally ill patients have this option but it’s illegal. Then it’s up to the producers to decide whether we give it to them. For me, these are morals,” he said. “Our goal is to learn how to make cannabis oil, give it to patients, and train them on how to make it themselves.”
Ladda is one person who has successfully made her own cannabis oil. However, the raw materials are hard to find and are costly. She wishes the government would allow citizens to legally grow greater quantities of cannabis at home.
The Bhumjaithai Party promised to advocate free and recreational use of marijuana when campaigning for the March 2019 national election, touting it as a potential “cash crop” for the kingdom. Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul—now Thailand’s Minister of Public Health—advocated for a model in which registered growers can plant up to six marijuana plants per household.
A version of this model has since been introduced, but heavy restrictions remain. Individuals are not allowed to farm cannabis in Thailand, and must be part of a “community enterprise” formed of seven members, while also being in contact with a local hospital. As of February this year, there are some 82 community enterprises approved to grow cannabis for research and medical purposes.
But the law around them remains complicated, and for Ed, far too restrictive.
“Today it’s empirical that cannabis is medicinal. What we ask for is for everyone to be allowed to grow cannabis and make medicine from it themselves,” he said.
These restrictions mean that for now, patients with serious illnesses requiring stronger doses of cannabis oil to relieve pain still turn to illegal producers like Ed.
While for Ladda, the risks associated with moving over to legitimate avenues for her son’s treatment remain too great.
“I haven't taken cannabis oil from the Ministry of Public Health because I’m not confident of the concentration,” she said. “If I make the switch, it may affect my son.”
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