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 military government, which has called elections for the end of February, has backed medical usage, which must be approved by the nation’s monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
By a vote of 166 to 0, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly approved legislation this week that would 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 during a televised session on Tuesday.
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 became 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 medical marijuana for patients with “exceptional need” after two children with epilepsy were denied the use of cannabis, which they relied on in their treatment.
Some jurisdictions are stricter than others in defining which medical conditions can be treated with cannabis. In Canada, as well as several American 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 who are caught face capital punishment.
In Malaysia, a man who sold cannabis oil to patients was sentenced in August to death by hanging. The Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, said in September that the sentence should be reviewed.
In Indonesia, a British man told the BBC this month that he faced up to 15 years in prison after he was arrested with cannabis oil that he used to treat chronic pain from arthritis.
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.
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.