Home » Thailand’s legal weed going up in smoke

Thailand’s legal weed going up in smoke


BANGKOK – Two years after a military-led government decriminalized cannabis, Thailand’s elected civilian leader announced he will end its recreational use in December, shut thousands of licensed weed shops and punish those involved with marijuana unless for medical use.

The sudden reversal threatens the popularity of an already squabbling coalition government elected as voters’ second choice in May 2023 under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and his second-placing Pheu Thai Party.

Peua Thai portrays itself as staunchly anti-marijuana but some powerful parties in its coalition favor regulated recreational use and production, similar to alcohol or tobacco, to boost Thailand’s struggling economy.

Cannabis investors, farmers, sellers and consumers have expressed outrage and said if weed becomes illegal again, it would destroy Thailand’s rapidly expanding, multi-million dollar, foreign-invested cannabis industry, which caters largely to international tourists.

Cannabis supporters held small rallies on May 16 at the Health Ministry and tourist-packed Phuket island’s Provincial Health Office, demanding Prime Minister Srettha’s health minister prove recreational cannabis is worse for health compared to alcohol and tobacco.

The Cannabis Future Network said it will rally supporters to protest in front of the Health Ministry until that proof appears.

“Just search on the internet and you will find there has been no research which show cannabis has a serious negative impact on mental health,” said Cannabis Future Network’s secretary-general Prasitchai Nunual.

“On the other hand, there are countless studies which demonstrate the health benefits of cannabis, which are sufficient to conclude that cannabis plants have medicinal properties,” Prasitchai said.

“The government has suddenly said that cannabis will be placed back in the narcotic list, making it illegal again and making millions of people criminals overnight,” Assadet Nongsang, a pro-cannabis activist told The Phuket Express news.

For centuries, cannabis sativa has been considered a traditional medicine in Thailand. After decriminalization, its properties are now taught in several universities’ government-backed schools of traditional medicine.

Cannabis is currently legal for anyone over 18 years old and not pregnant, but smoking in public can result in a fine.

The previous military-led government’s elected prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha – who seized power in a 2014 coup – removed cannabis from the Narcotics Code in 2021, ending the 1935 Cannabis Act ban.

The plant immediately became legal for medical use only, but in 2022 those restraints vanished, allowing recreational use.

Marijuana’s undefined legal status means there are no fines or punishment for possession and use, while sales, production and other aspects are licensed.

Prayut’s then-health minister Anutin Charnvirakul told the public they could earn fortunes by growing marijuana at home or on farms instead of other crops. He even handed out live plants to eager recipients.

Anutin’s push to legalize cannabis was a winning ticket for his Bhumjaithai party in the 2019 election.

Now a powerful interior minister and a deputy prime minister in the coalition government, Anutin said an official study of cannabis was needed and panel discussions aired before changing marijuana’s legal status.

Srettha’s Peua Thai and its supporters fear cannabis is distorting the minds of Thai teenagers who go online to score from farms which make deliveries. Pro-cannabis campaigners, meanwhile, want regulations ensuring recreational weed is not contaminated with insecticide or mold.

Various coalition factions offered two draft bills to parliament where they languish, but Peua Thai wants a fresh draft to be agreed on by December.

“Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin may mean well in attempting to re-list cannabis as a narcotic, but his aim only attests to his mediocre knowledge about the plant and the dilemma facing the country,” the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.

“Allowing recreational use with proper regulations, while enacting measures to protect non-cannabis users in public places, can be acceptable,” the paper said in an editorial.

Srettha is widely considered a pliant proxy for the convicted, jailed and currently paroled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin’s administration unleashed a “war on drugs” in 2003 which killed more than 2,500 people in largely uninvestigated circumstances, and was one of the reasons cited by coup leaders for toppling him in 2006.

Thaksin is helping Srettha and Peua Thai increase their power, but the party’s anti-cannabis stance is up against others in their ruling coalition who advocated for and allowed decriminalization.

The prime minister’s demand that only medical cannabis be permitted could spawn a corrupt system where licensed doctors easily issue prescriptions to virtually anyone willing to pay extra, critics said.

They also suspect Thailand’s popular alcohol businesses are anti-cannabis because consumers may switch from drinking liquor to smoking weed.

Some critics liken Thailand’s new anti-weed campaign to the 1930s US film “Reefer Madness” and its exaggerations.

The lack of regulations meanwhile has created an uneven market for Thais trying to legally grow and sell marijuana, resulting in a current oversupply and low prices.

Marijuana with high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, which produces the drug’s effect, sells for US$2 to $25 per gram, often for the same strain and strength.

US and other foreign investors have also been involved in opening legal shops with Thai partners, such as San Francisco-based Cookies’ upmarket showroom on the lane behind the American Embassy.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978, and winner of Columbia University’s Foreign Correspondents’ Award. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.

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