Top: Cannabis medicines seized from an American national in Chiang Mai on Feb. 28, 2019.

It’s an unprecedented, hectic time at the FDA.

The Food and Drug Administration has been inundated by tens of thousands of inquiries and applications since the medical marijuana law became effective in February, which offers amnesty for those in possession of cannabis to treat their illnesses.

Officials in some departments spent entire days answering phone calls, receiving guests, and clarifying their doubts. Telephone lines were always busy, inevitably prompting personal visits to the government offices day in and day out for months.

Government officials are famous for their habit of leaving their offices punctually at 4:30 p.m., the close of government hours. But on the last day the amnesty registration was available – Tuesday, May 21 at 10:00 p.m – officials were seen servicing a large crowd scrambling for the last minute reprieve. All roads led to the FDA on that day.

In the end, over 30,000 citizens registered for the amnesty at the FDA in Bangkok and provincial public-health offices in an illustration of how popular medical cannabis is in Thailand, and how it was secretly consumed by a large number of the local population.

Euphoria

Cannabis has become a common buzzword in the nation. The once-taboo word, “cannabis” appears in the news widely many times a day. It’s now a very topical subject of conversations and debate in nearly every chat room of social media applications and mainstream press.

The sick and the healthy alike have openly expressed their enthusiasm to use cannabis; the healthy cite migraine, headaches and “stress,” something that can be cured by a leisurely walk in the park, as reasons they need cannabis for the amnesty.

Not only citizens are caught in the frenzy. Medical practitioners –in particular the three core professions: doctors, dentists and pharmacists – nearly crashed the website the Department of Medical Services (DMS) with their online applications to be trained in cannabis medicine.

It’s a first step that would enable them to apply for an FDA cannabis sale license and prescribe cannabinoid medication.

In the first round of the DMS cannabis training course held in April, which was limited to the controlled three core medical professions mentioned above, the 200-applicant slots were amazingly full in half an hour of its opening!

The second-round training that was just completed during two days last week on May 23 and May 24 was no less fascinating, filling up another 200 slots in no time.

The third to sixth rounds starting in June and running to July, August and September were likewise fully taken by 800 medical practitioners.

Not every trainee will pass the course. Around 12 percent, or 25 doctors, failed the first round post-training test. Results of the second round should be known early June.

The bad news for the practitioners at large and those who fail is that the class-room style training is unlikely to be extended beyond the sixth round.

The good news is the DMS is designing an e-learning program for online training to meet a growing demand in the medical professions.

Acquiring a license

It’s a widely held myth to fathom that the passing of the DMS training course will instantly certify a doctor to dole out medical marijuana.

In fact, the compulsory course is merely one pre-qualification to enable the doctor to apply for a cannabis sale license from the FDA. Only upon receipt of the FDA license will the doctor qualify to dispense marijuana formulas.

Once the doctor has obtained a sales license, there is no need for them to obtain the other four types of the FDA cannabis licenses: manufacturing (for factories), import (for companies or government agencies), export (for companies and government agencies) and possession (for researchers).

Patients do not need a possession license as they will be given cannabis medication by doctors and pharmacists who received cannabis sale licenses from the FDA.

Practitioners trained in DMS cannabis cannot apply for FDA marijuana sale licenses yet. The holdup is a lack of an implementing FDA ordinance to announce a lawful list of cannabis medicines, which should be issued in a month or two.

Big bowl of alphabet soup

Don’t smoke too much weed – you will need every brain cell to memorize the names of complex divisions and departments within the Ministry of Public Health that deal with cannabis.

Alongside the FDA and the DMS, there are the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine or DTAM, the Thai Traditional Medicine Council, the Thai Traditional Medicine Professional Board, and the Department of Health Service Support or HSS.

Not to be outdone by their modern medical colleagues, traditional Thai medicine practitioners, applied traditional Thai medicine practitioners and folk doctors, licensed by the Thai Traditional Medicine Professional Board and promoted by DTAM, can also be trained in separate cannabis courses after being hand-picked by the Thai Traditional Medicine Council.

The traditional practitioners must work for and be associated with a Thai traditional clinic certified by HSS.

A training program for the first batch of 150 traditional practitioners, also serving as a precursor to an FDA cannabis sale license, is being prepared by DTAM and will be launched shortly as soon as all the preparations are in place.

The cannabis market developments in Thailand are taking place so fast it is hard to keep up. A large number of interested parties miss the boat, simply because of high competitive levels of participants involved and a challenge in sifting through mountains of information from tons of different sources that are now made available.

Hemp

Lastly, it would be remiss to mention these remarkable changes without discussing hemp, a plant that could help revitalize the Thai economy.

A little known fact is that foreigners can grow hemp by 2021.

According to the law, companies where foreigners control no larger than 33 percent of shares will be allowed to grow hemp for commercial medicinal purpose in 2021, after the three-year government trial projects in Northern provinces end in 2020.

The cultivation will be overseen by several agencies including the Narcotics Control Board.

The gradual move of cannabis from government to companies does not include individuals, Thai or foreign, and majority-foreign owned companies.

The commercialization of this strain of cannabis, the scientific name: cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa, is expected to start with the main purpose of the 2019 cannabis law: medicine, before playing out into food, beverages and other industries, with export ultimately aimed to bring in cash for the country.

Wirot Poonsuwan is the Senior Counsel and Head of Special Projects at Blumenthal Richter & Sumet in Bangkok and can be reached at [email protected]