BANGKOK, Thailand -- Buddhist-majority Thailand is about to become the
first Southeast Asian nation to legalize medical marijuana, hoping its
traditional secretive potions, stoner "Thai Sticks," inexpensive
quality health care and export marketeers will rescue patients and
produce award-winning cash crops.

Thailand's coup-installed junta leader is so enthusiastic, he is using
draconian powers to defend Thai marijuana products from foreign
patents which have been applied for in Bangkok to monopolize future
herb-derived concoctions.

During the 1960s and 70s, American hippies and other smokers described
powerful Thai-grown marijuana as "Thai Sticks" because a small amount
was illegally sold skewered on a slender, pencil-long, wooden stick
the way grilled street food is offered here.

Marijuana is still illegal with long prison sentences meted out for
possession, sales and smuggling.

Nevertheless, Thailand is used for a monthly Full Moon Party on Koh
Phangan, where thousands of mostly young foreign tourists drink
buckets of beer, smoke Thai weed or drop ecstasy and dance until dawn
on the island's beach.

In cities, people gossip about discreet parties in posh residences
where international professionals and wealthy Thais smoke grass, drink
expensive whiskeys, and feast on fine food while discussing world

At some hip entertainment venues where tobacco is allowed outside,
marijuana's scent occasionally mingles in the air.

Elsewhere, bikini-clad bar girls sometimes invite foreign customers to
smoke upstairs with them in bars' darkened cubicles for spaced-out

One American woman said she panicked while walking out of a seedy bar
when she saw two policemen walking in after she purchased a small

A European man said police caught him smoking in his parked car and,
terrified, he opened his wallet and allowed them to take a $600 bribe.

In winding backstreets, impoverished workers wearing ragged clothes
sometimes share a smoke while waiting to hoist heavy sacks of rice or
pull carts laden with construction debris.

Marijuana is much less popular among Thais compared with their
voracious appetite for illegal methamphetamines.

Each year, massive busts in Thailand net millions of pills
manufactured and smuggled throughout the region.

The majority of Thais obey drug laws, but their cultural interests are
changing, influenced by hip-hop, Hollywood and Internet.

For example, relatively rich Thais buy expensive tickets to rural
outdoor music festivals where Thai rock groups perform for a few days
amid tie-dye fashions, peace signs, psychedelic posters and other
nostalgic hippie themes.

In Bangkok, long-haired, tattooed Thais joined a November rally for
legalization, holding signs which included in broken English:
"Cannabis change world!"

Thai media occasionally flashes a marijuana leaf or an inside trippy
joke in shops' advertisements, news headlines and other surprising

In villages, cooks sometimes mix loose, dried weed into spicy Thai
soups if a familiar customer asks for something to relieve a headache
or other pains.

Preparing for medical marijuana's legalization, the Government
Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) reportedly invested $3.6 million to
create a marijuana plantation for research and development.

"It can kill people if we can't allow the use of cannabis for medical
treatment to save lives," GPO chairman Dr. Sophon Mekthon told a
recent seminar.

"Marijuana is Thailand's future cash crop," Commerce Minister Sontirat
Sontijirawong said in November.

This rapidly modernizing country is still mostly agricultural, and
investors are also planning exports.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's military government is moving
swiftly to protect patents before loosening the 1979 Narcotics Act to
legalize marijuana for medical use.

"I am writing a new order under Section 44," Mr. Prayuth said on November 26.

Section 44 in the regime's 2014 constitution gives Mr. Prayuth "the
powers to make any order" to maintain security, stop threats to
"national economics," and control other situations "inside or outside"

Mr. Prayuth led Thailand's U.S.-trained military in a bloodless 2014
coup and, under Section 44, his absolute powers overrule "legislative,
executive or judicial" branches of government.

His tackling of marijuana-related patents came after Thais voiced
fears of being blocked from local research and losing massive profits.

The Department of Intellectual Property has received patent
applications from foreign companies for THC-derived products which
could be made or sold in Thailand, and the department is considering
how to proceed.

Mr. Prayuth indicated careful study is required so his solution does
not infringe local or international laws.

The Thai Patent Act of 1979 forbids patents on "animals, plants or
extracts from animals or plants," including "extracts from animals or
plants that have not undergone any man-made substantial processing."

Patent attorney San Chaithiraphant said, "In the case of cannabis,
this means that the cannabis plant, including its stem, flower, leaf
and crude extracts, is not patentable.

"If a human brings a natural thing to be processed by technical means,
and produces results and benefits that are not found in the natural
state of that thing, then that processed natural thing may be
patented," Mr. San wrote in an analysis published on November 22.

Only marijuana's "use" can be patented, not its substances, Mr. San said.

"We will then cultivate the Thai people can have affordable
access to good medicine," said Government Pharmaceutical Organization
director Withoon Danwiboon.

Inexpensive medical care is a winning issue among Thais, and medical
marijuana legalization is hugely popular, according to published

Health officials including Rangsit University's Pharmacy College want
to experiment with extracts to treat nausea, neuropathy, epilepsy,
multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, severe pain and other
dire conditions.

The Public Health Ministry and the Institute of Thai Traditional
Medicine want to test marijuana's abilities in scores of formulas
which date back hundreds of years and include boiling the plant or
distilling it in alcohol and mixing it with other herbs.

"This does not mean people are allowed to grow marijuana in the
backyards," warned government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta on
November 13.

"It will still be under control."

Officials hoped to use huge caches of seized illegal marijuana no
longer needed as evidence -- instead of having to grow their own.

Illegal crops however were found to be tainted. So the government
needs to plant and harvest marijuana in controlled environments.

"We have to prevent marijuana from being contaminated by chemicals or
insecticides," said Narcotics Control Board secretary-general Niyom

While many people hope recreational use will soon be legal, that may take years.

"This is not the time to allow people to smoke pot and laugh all day,"
Mr. Prayuth said on October 31, rejecting immediate total legalization
for what Thais call "ganja."

Disappointed enthusiasts say recreational use would profit the country
by attracting more international tourists who could get high and enjoy
Thailand's gorgeous beaches, exquisite cuisine, sensual spas, sexy
nightlife and other hedonistic thrills.