The Thai government has taken a major step towards ushering in a regulated cannabis industry by signing off legislation that permits medicinal marijuana.

Thailand has always been a world leader in cannabis cultivation, but economists in the country fear that the likes of Canada and Colombia could leave it in the shade. There have been numerous calls for the government to legalize cannabis and allow the economy to benefit from a crop that’s widely planted across the country.

The Thai cabinet has now signed off draft legislation that permits doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients suffering from a range of complaints. It represents a watershed moment in Southeast Asia, as the region has previously dished out strict punishments for anyone convicted of supplying marijuana and its approach has softened considerably.

The draft bill, devised by the National Legislative Assembly, will now go to the Council of State, the Public Health Ministry and the Office of Narcotics Control Board for further deliberation. However, that should prove to be a mere formality now that the cabinet has given its approval.

Government spokesman Puttipong Punnakanta said the Thai Public Health Ministry will control marijuana use for at least five years after the new legalization becomes effective, and he added that the law will be reviewed after five years to check its efficacy.

The Thai government now faces a tough balancing act, as there is likely to be a struggle for supremacy between local farmers and multinational firms that will inevitably muscle in. Canada’s leading lights are all making great inroads into the Colombian market, where producing a gram of cannabis costs $0.05 to produce as opposed to $1.50 in Canada, and it’s easy to imagine a similar situation developing in Thailand.

The Southeast Asian nation has an ideal climate for cannabis cultivation and it is widely revered for producing some of the most potent and legendary strains on the planet. Labour is cheap in Thailand and there’s a great deal of local expertise when it comes to cultivating it, with rich soil and plenty of sunshine, so it could re-establish itself as a world leader in the field.

The Thai Department of Intellectual Property has just revealed that a number of foreign cannabis companies have attempted to file patents in Thailand on cannabis extracts. It looks like it’s turning into another fascinating battleground as leading cannabis companies vie for global dominance.

On the domestic market, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said it will be used to treat symptoms of cancer, epilepsy and cystitis, among others. This might also cause neighbouring countries like Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia to follow suit, opening up a potentially huge market for the burgeoning medicinal marijuana industry.