By Chayut Setboonsarng
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand opened its first full-time clinic specialising in traditional and alternative cannabis-based medicine on Monday, as part of a move by the government towards developing a medicinal cannabis industry.
"This is a pilot clinic, because we cannot produce enough doctors with expertise in cannabis," Public Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, told reporters at the opening ceremony in Bangkok. Patients will receive treatment free of charge for the first two weeks, he added.
Thailand, which has a tradition of using cannabis to relieve pain and fatigue, legalized marijuana for medical use and research in 2017 to boost agricultural income.
There are already around 25 cannabis clinics attached to general hospitals around the country but, unlike the newly-launched pilot clinic, they operate for just a few days a week due to a lack of specialised staff.
The largest producer of medicinal cannabis is currently the health ministry's Government Pharmaceutical Organisation.
Kasetsart University's director of medical cannabis research, Natakorn Thasnas, told Reuters that the university would supply 2,200 kilograms of cannabis leaf to the ministry.
Cannabis production, cultivation and sale has been limited to licensed Thai producers for the next four years to protect the domestic industry. Currently, only hospitals and research facilities are allowed to apply for cannabis production and extraction licenses, but the government is reviewing regulations to enable Thai businesses to apply for permits.
Last year, Thailand dropped cannabis and hemp extracts from its narcotics list and proposed a draft law that would allow each household to grow six cannabis plants.
Four types of drugs, containing different combinations of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psycho-active ingredient in cannabis, were given to patients to treat migraine, insomnia, neck pain and muscle stiffness, the ministry said in a statement.
The pilot clinic, based in the Ministry of Public Health, expects to see between 200 to 300 patients daily.
"I was worried at first, but I studied the effects and decided it was better because its natural," said Waraporn Boonsri, 69, who received four vials of cannabis oil to help her sleep.
Nearly 2,200 patients have registered at the clinic until March, a health official told Reuters. Anutin said there were plans for 77 clinics to be opened across the country, with one in every province.
(This story fixes minister's name to "Charnvirakul" in 2nd paragraph)
(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Prapan Chankaew; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)