Thailand approves medical cannabis in New Year’s ‘gift’

In a regional first, Thailand’s junta-appointed parliament voted Tuesday to approve marijuana for medical use. A top lawmaker described the vote as a holiday gift to the country.

“This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” said Somchai Sawangkarn, chairman of the drafting committee, according to Reuters.

Lawmakers voted to amend the Narcotic Act of 1979 to legalize the production, import, export, possession and use of cannabis for medical and research purposes, Bangkok Post reported. Recreational marijuana remains illegal in the country.

Sawangkarn noted that the amendment will come into effect once it’s published in the Government Gazette, the country’s public journal.

Thailand is the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medical marijuana. The region has some of the world’s toughest penalties for drug law violations, with marijuana traffickers potentially facing the death penalty in nearby countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In an apparent response to news of Thailand’s impending medical marijuana vote, Singapore’s government issued a stern warning earlier this year that it would duly punish any citizen or permanent resident found to have consumed marijuana abroad. Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau reminded people that it conducts enforcement checks at immigration checkpoints and that “any Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident found to have abused controlled drugs overseas will be treated as if [they] had abused drugs in Singapore.”

Thailand has a long tradition of marijuana use for medical relief. As Reuters noted, the drug was traditionally used to relieve pain and fatigue until the 1930s when it was banned.