It was 2 o’clock in the morning when Philippe Gobert hopped on his scooter. He left his place in the capital’s Pinklao area and rode northeast over 150 kilometers to the lesser-known province of Prachinburi.
There, the French national; clad in a white robe beneath a faded red hoodie, Buddha amulet and visible sak yant chest tattoos; arrived by 6am to join dozens of people hopefully waiting for the chance to return home with cannabis medication from the first clinic to make it available in all of Asia.
“Wat Pho’s massage, yoga, meditation, cannabis. I’ve tried them all,” Gobert said, adding that he possesses a French medical certificate for medical cannabis use.
A bastion of traditional Thai medicine, the Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital is now at the forefront of bringing medical marijuana to the nation’s most-desperate patients. But that doesn’t mean just anyone can walk in and buy cannabis products.
The clinic – which for now is only open one day a month – screens patients for qualifying conditions, such as those suffering from Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy whose symptoms are not responding to conventional drug treatments.
Other than those two disorders, eligibility depends upon staff judgment.
Hear The Coconuts Podcast’s full, uncut interview with attorney Wirot Poonsuwan about medical marijuana in Thailand.
The first day the clinic opened in late June saw about 50 patients show up for a trial, with 12 allowed to receive treatment consisting of pure extracted cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive compound known as CBD.
Two months later – on Aug. 26 – two times the number showed up for the next session. Of the 100 patients, 31 qualified.
It’s all being done as a clinical trial.
Patients, who can register in advance or walk in, consult with medical staff before submitting to physical exams and diagnoses. If doctors see cannabis-based medication as necessary, the eligible patients must sign a document to be in a part of the project. After they get cannabis oil, the patients would receive an email or phone call within 4 days for follow-up clinical monitoring.
‘It changed my life’
Gobert, 57, said he’s suffered for years with a little-understood condition that leaves his fingers permanently flexed, as well as chronic pain and complications resulting from spinal surgery.
The former sports teacher was forced to retire due to his disability, after which he came to Thailand.
Gobert said, despite his poor health, he was willing to make the long, dark scooter ride to access marijuana-based treatment legally.
“My happiness is to be on the list of official patients of this clinic, because now I can use this medicine and have good effects without getting stressed out of being illegal,” Gobert said.
Gobert said he contacted the hospital in advance. While a foreign-issued medical certificate would not be valid in Thailand, the hospital has the authority to issue the paperwork needed to obtain a prescription for patients deemed eligible and in need.
Another benefit to the clinic, Gobert said, was that instead of getting weed illegally – which has no guarantee of quality – he can put his trust in the higher standards and quality offered by the clinic.
“It changed my life. Thailand is doing something really, really good,” he said, adding that he’s thinking about relocating from Bangkok to Prachinburi to be near the clinic.
The hospital received its first batch of 100 CBD bottles from the Food and Drug Administration in June. More bottles were then prepared from police-seized marijuana, which was then sent to a hospital facility to be purified via supercritical CO2 extraction method.
In the month of August, it marks the first time the hospital produced the first batch of 4,000 bottles (5ml each) with 1.7 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content ready for distribution nationwide.
Chin Donmon, 72 of the nearby Si Mahosot district, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly 10 years ago. Due to tremors and uncontrollable body movements, Chin was unable to walk on her own or turn herself over in bed. Her family – husband, son and daughter – said they had given up hope she would get better and had remade their home into a nursing home.
The first day the clinic opened, Chin had to be pushed in a wheelchair. She went home with one bottle of CBD to take a drop before bedtime every night.
Late last month, when the clinic opened again, she walked in on her own.
Her husband, Tawil Donmon, as well as doctors and nurses at the clinic said she was trembling less and sleeping better.
“It was a miracle. My daughter cried with joy,” Tawil said.
Not ‘superhero’ but ‘new hope’
Long before it was criminalized, Thailand has a long history of using cannabis as a traditional medicine and therapeutic condiment. Back then, it was used to boost appetites and called yaa mhoo uaun (“chubby pig medicine”), according to clinic chief and hospital senior pharmacist Supaporn Pitiporn.
“We used to pick a young shoot of marijuana plant to eat with chili dipping sauce or, sometimes, we put a few leaves into a curry,” Supaporn said. “Thai people in the past knew their way around the herb quite well: How to use it and the right quantity to avoid harmful effects.”
That was before the country followed Western precedent to ban marijuana in the 1930s. Any possession, sale or use was made a crime by the 1934 Cannabis Act. It remains listed as a Category 5 drug, the use of which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and fines up to THB1.5 million.
“There was a period of time that cannabis disappeared from Thai people’s lifestyle and now it’s revived. It’s a new topic and we need to learn about it all over again,” Supaporn said.
Late last year, the rubber-stamp parliament passed a progressive bill decriminalizing its medical use; last week, CBD and THC extracts at low volumes as well as hemp were removed from the list of scheduled drugs.
Though touted for several benefits including pain relief, appetite stimulation – even controlling seizures and alleviating Parkinson’s symptoms – the flowering plant does pose some risks, she said, and should be handled carefully.
“Some of us think it’s a superhero. Well, it’s not,” Supaporn said. “We have to accept the fact that it can be addictive. It has some health risks and side effects we all need to be aware of.”
“If we use it right and properly, it’s our new hope,” she added.
At the back of the hospital, dozens of marijuana plants are growing inside shipping containers in controlled environments – hydroponics and aeroponics – with help from local farmers in the nearby Ban Dong Bang community. In the future, with more partnerships, the hospital plans to build a greenhouse where more plants are cultivated and produced at a higher capacity.
The medical marijuana clinic is located inside the Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital northeast of Bangkok in Prachinburi city. The clinic is currently open 1pm to 4pm on the fourth Monday of every month. It’s next session is Sept. 28, and there are plans to expand operating hours in the future. It can be reached via telephone number 037-211289 (8:30am – 4:30pm weekdays) and Facebook.