Cannabis Crunch: Thailand’s Sudden Reversal on Marijuana Legalization

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Cannabis Crunch: Thailand’s Sudden Reversal on Marijuana Legalization

The country is tightening its laws on marijuana use, just 18 months after becoming the first Southeast Asian nation to legalize the drug.

Cannabis Crunch: Thailand’s Sudden Reversal on Marijuana Legalization

A cannabis shop near the city of Pattaya, Thailand, November 2022.

Credit: Depositphotos

On January 10, Thailand’s government announced that it is reversing its progressive policies toward cannabis, just 18 months after becoming the first nation in Southeast Asia to legalize the drug. The new government, led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, aims to limit cannabis use strictly to medical purposes, as indicated by a recently proposed bill. After taking office last year, Srettha pledged to “rectify” cannabis laws within six months due to concerns that decriminalization had led to a spike in recreational drug use.

The proposed bill, drafted by the Ministry of Public Health, not only restricts cannabis use to medical purposes but also reintroduces strict penalties for both possession and use, including hefty fines and up to one-year prison sentences. New Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew has announced that cannabis extracts containing more than 0.2 percent of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, will be classified as narcotics. He says the purpose of the law is to rectify what the government perceives as the “wrong usage of cannabis.”

Srettha’s stance marks a striking shift from the pioneering stance taken by the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, which removed cannabis from the country’s register of illegal narcotics, allowing the legal cultivation, trade, and use of marijuana and hemp. Nearly overnight, this sparked a boom in cannabis-related businesses, such as dispensaries, weed cafes, and hemp spas. Cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok embraced the trend, hosting weed festivals that attracted tourists and further fueled the growth of the cannabis industry.

In media interviews, Srettha has expressed concerns about drug abuse. “Cannabis policy will be medical cannabis,” he said in an interview shortly after taking office. “On recreational use, I do not agree with that.”

Meanwhile, Anutin Charnvirakul, the former public health minister who was the main proponent of legalization, clarified that the focus was never on allowing public recreational cannabis use. Instead, the intention was to promote cannabis policies for medical purposes, which would in turn create economic opportunities for farmers.

The abrupt reversal has disappointed pro-legislation advocates, sparking concerns about its impact on the economy and the numerous businesses invested in the cannabis sector. Advocacy groups such as the Future Cannabis Network argue that the government’s shift is a knee-jerk reaction, suggesting that it is too late to reclassify cannabis as an illegal narcotic. Kitty Chopaka, a pro-cannabis advocate, told Voice of America that she hoped that the government would stop short of a blanket ban. “What I hope it meant was that he will get rid of all those places that don’t have any licenses or get rid of all illegal cannabis,” she said, expressing fears that recriminalization would have a heavy impact on the poor.

While economic ramifications are a focal point, the policy reversal could also have legal implications. The shift from a decriminalized cannabis environment to a restrictive one presents potential legal challenges. The existing entrepreneurs in Thailand’s cannabis industry may face difficulties adapting to the new regulations. The shift introduces potential challenges in areas such as contracts, possibly leading to disputes. Groups like the Future Cannabis Network may explore legal avenues to express concerns and contest the government’s actions in court.

In recent years, there has been a growing acceptance of cannabis in many parts of the world. Several countries and states have moved towards decriminalization and even full legalization of cannabis for both medical and recreational use. This trend has been driven by evolving public attitudes, acknowledgment of the potential economic benefits, and recognition of the medicinal properties of cannabis.

In contrast to Thailand’s recent shift, countries like Canada and multiple U.S. states have legalized recreational cannabis, generated significant revenue, and established a legal framework for its use and sale. In Europe, nations like the Netherlands and Portugal have embraced liberal approaches, emphasizing harm reduction and treatment over strict criminalization.

Thailand’s abrupt shift back toward criminalization underscores the diverse attitudes and approaches that nations have taken and reflects the complex interplay of cultural, political, and social factors shaping drug policies across the globe.

Thailand’s abrupt policy reversal on recreational cannabis is raising concerns about its potential impact on the burgeoning cannabis industry and investors. The unexpected shift may lead to unintended consequences, including economic ramifications and potential legal challenges. The reception of this decision, both domestically and internationally, remains uncertain, especially given the evolving global discourse on cannabis.

The repercussions extend beyond national borders, with the international community, particularly countries like Canada and Europe, known for advocating liberal drug policies, likely scrutinizing Thailand’s move. The move could also influence the regional drug landscape in Asia; neighboring countries with conservative drug policies could find validation in Thailand’s stance.

The government plans to conclude the drafting of the cannabis legislation by next week. Subsequently, it is foreseen that parliamentary debates on the bill will unfold in the following week. Nevertheless, the official confirmation of the enactment date remains undisclosed at this juncture. Notably, the deadline for public feedback is set for January 23. Following this, the cabinet will assess both the draft legislation and the received suggestions before advancing it to parliament for additional deliberation.