ears that Thailand would literally go to pot if the Cannabis and Hemp Act, which had passed the first reading in the House of Representatives last June, had the country’s legislators voting against it on Sept. 14, leading to a further review of the bill. The lawmakers did as expected. That guarantees a more intense debate over cannabis in the coming months. It also means Thailand remains in a legal vacuum over cannabis, which was officially taken off the country’s banned substances list on June 9.
No rules had accompanied that delisting, thus allowing people in the kingdom to grow and use weed in whatever way they want. Authorities have since been trying to lay down rules here and there in an attempt to have something resembling order. Among other things, the bill was supposed to set nationwide regulations on the manufacture, trade, and use of cannabis. But those who recently opposed it in Parliament said that they want to make sure any such legislation should have no loopholes that could allow “recreational use” of marijuana.
Ironically, their action may have only prolonged the de facto “recreational use” of marijuana in Thailand. Khao San Road, the famous backpackers’ center in Bangkok, has practically turned into a mecca of legal cannabis purchases since the delisting. Shops and stalls selling weed, including cafes and bakeries offering goods containing marijuana, have also sprouted all over the capital. Across Thailand, many people are now growing cannabis — some of which is courtesy of the government, which has been giving away thousands of seedlings — either for personal consumption or commercial purposes.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has called the House rejection of the bill, which was proposed by his Bhumjaithai Party (BJTP), politically motivated. Observers meanwhile say that his moves regarding marijuana seemed to have been timed for the next elections, which are expected to be held in early 2023.
The decriminalization of cannabis is a key policy of the BJTP, currently the second-largest party in the coalition government. The BJTP plans to have Anutin, its leader, as its candidate for prime minister in next year’s polls.
The more malicious have suggested, half-seriously, that all this is a sinister plot by the powers that be so that Thais would get high and therefore distracted from holding officials accountable — literally, opium (or in this case, marijuana) of the masses.
A policy 180
In Thailand, mere possession of marijuana used to mean risking a jail sentence of up to 15 years. This is not unusual in Southeast Asia, which is notorious for having countries that have some of the strictest drug laws in the world. In 2018, however, Thailand became the first nation in the region to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Quoting the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, a Bloomberg report released on Sept. 15 said that the country’s combined market of medical marijuana and hemp alone is expected to reach US$1.2 billion by 2025.
Anutin, who is also deputy prime minister, has said that the decriminalization of cannabis is primarily for medical and “economic purposes.” Indeed, among those supporting the policy are farmers looking for the next golden cash crop and weed sellers, along with major pharmaceutical companies, which have been busy developing products from cannabis. The country’s tourism sector is also looking at the cannabis decriminalization as a largely positive move, even as a Reuters report has indicated that Anutin wants stoners from abroad to steer clear of Thailand, quoting him as saying, “We don’t welcome those kinds of tourists.”
Obviously, though, medical tourists are more than welcome to use marijuana — which can ease pain and help those suffering from insomnia and depression — as part of their treatment.
Yet another effect of the decriminalization of cannabis, however, is that it is helping decongest the country’s prisons. To date, more than 3,000 prisoners who had been serving time for marijuana-related offenses have been released.
By August, or just two months after cannabis was delisted as a banned narcotic in Thailand, Anutin was already declaring his party’s policy on the decriminalization of marijuana a success. He also said that there had been no perceptible level of abuse in the use of marijuana, in an apparent nod to those fearful that cannabis’s delisting could result in a boom in potheads.
Yet, Anutin has also said that the use of cannabis for recreational purposes “might come in the near future,” once there is a better understanding of it.
Then again, the future is already here. Indeed, on Khao San Road, there is at least one shop that offers organic joints with a smoking room on site. This is despite the government’s recent regulations making cannabis smoking in public areas a crime punishable by up to three months in jail or fines of up to THB 25,000 or around US$700.
Such a situation is probably getting the likes of Suphat Hasuwannakit, president of the Rural Doctor Society, all riled up. In a post on his Facebook page about a month after the delisting of cannabis, Suphat said that while he supports the government’s policy of decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes, he and his peers oppose the use of marijuana for recreational purposes.
“[People] should not just be able to buy cannabis without any justification,” he wrote. He argued that restrictions applied to the purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco should also be applied to marijuana.
More recently, a fresh petition signed by more than 1,300 doctors called for the scrapping of the policy on cannabis decriminalization.
In a joint statement issued in July, some 25 Muslim organizations in Thailand also expressed their opposition to the delisting of cannabis, citing religious reasons. Many parents are concerned as well that their children could end up being addicted to marijuana, now that it has obtained implicit state blessing and is easily available.
Among the government’s catch-up rules on cannabis following its decriminalization, however, is one that says its possession and use are allowed only among people 20 years old and above unless one can present a doctor’s permission for it.
No turning back?
Beneath the worries over a possible rise in those addicted to weed is the fact that Thailand has been grappling with drug abuse for decades. And while marijuana users assert that it is nothing like cocaine or heroin, those against its use argue that it can act as an introduction to more dangerous substances.
As it is, entire villages in Thailand have been known to have drug addiction problems, with the substances of choice often being kratom (made with the leaves of a local plant, cough syrup, Coca-Cola, and ice) and ya ba (a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine). In 2003, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra even launched a “war on drugs” that ended up with the extrajudicial killings of nearly 3,000 people.
Thailand’s Chiang Rai is also part of the so-called “Golden Triangle,” an opium-growing and drug-trading region that includes sections of Laos and Myanmar. The region is said to churn out tens of billions of dollars each year in revenues, with the bulk of profits coming from methamphetamines.
But Anutin and the BJTP seem undeterred. The popular public health minister, who is often treated “like a rock star” in his provincial sorties, has shot down calls that cannabis be relisted as a narcotic while the Cannabis and Hemp Act is being reviewed.
Anutin said recently, “Relisting cannabis (as a narcotic) is ridiculous; we won’t do it because we have come so far. We haven’t seen any negative impact that is beyond our control.” He and his party vow to continue pressing for the bill to be passed, insisting that the public will only “benefit” from it.
From the looks of things, though, the bill will remain in limbo even after the current parliament ends its term next March. That means voters will be crucial in deciding the fate of Anutin’s cannabis policy. He and his critics have already realized this, and members of the Thai public are now being courted not just by those from both sides of the political divide, but also from both sides of the marijuana divide.◉