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Thailand set to allow medical marijuana, a first in Southeast Asia

BANGKOK — In a region known for its harsh penalties for illegal drugs, Thailand is set to become the first nation in Southeast Asia to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Thailand’s government has backed medical use, which must also be approved by the nation’s monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. By a 166-0 vote, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly approved legislation to allow the use of cannabis under medical supervision. Thirteen members abstained.

The measure is expected to take effect next year.

“This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” the lawmaker who headed the drafting committee, Somchai Sawangkarn, said Tuesday.

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Thailand’s penalty for recreational use — up to five years in prison for possession of 10 kilograms or less — would remain in place.

Marijuana can be useful in treating a wide range of conditions, including glaucoma, epilepsy, chronic pain, and the side effects of chemotherapy.

In the United States, California was the first state to legalize medical use, in 1996. Now it is one of 33 states that allow medical cannabis. Last month, Britain began allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for patients with “exceptional need.”

Some jurisdictions are stricter than others in defining which medical conditions can be treated with cannabis. In Canada, as well as several states including California, the legalization for medical use paved the way for lifting restrictions on recreational use.

But in Southeast Asia there has been little tolerance for medical marijuana until now. In Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, marijuana traffickers face capital punishment.

Details of how medical marijuana will be administered in Thailand remained unclear.

Only people authorized by the government will be allowed to plant or possess marijuana. Medical users will be required to have a prescription or medical marijuana identification card.

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Thailand is headed by the king, but the government is run on a day-to-day basis by the military regime, which seized power in 2014 after months of strife between rival factions.

Parliamentary elections, based on a constitution drafted by the military, are scheduled for early next year. Allowing the use of medical marijuana could win support from some Thais for military-backed parties.