6 June 2024

The fate of Thailand’s cannabis industry may hang on who wins the upcoming general election. Several parties are keen to undo the herb’s decriminalization that went into full effect in mid-2022.

Among them are the Pheu Thai, Democrat and Move Forward parties, all of whom have announced their stance clearly ahead of the election, which is tentatively set for May 7.

Marijuana policy

Pheu Thai’s deputy leader Sutin Klungsang said his party plans to restrict the use of marijuana to medical and research purposes.

“We do not accept marijuana being used for recreational purposes and have stood by this policy all along,” he said.

Sutin declared that if Pheu Thai forms the next government, it will take charge of the Public Health Ministry and tighten marijuana regulations.

Bhumjaithai Party currently oversees the Public Health Ministry as a partner in the ruling coalition. With the party at the ministry’s helm, Thailand has steered a course for decriminalizing marijuana and promoting it as a cash crop for the grassroots, among others. The result is that cannabis is now being used across the country for various purposes, including recreation.

As of March 5, more than 1.38 million people in Thailand had registered as cannabis growers. However, a legal vacuum exists when it comes to the use of cannabis, as the hemp and marijuana regulation bill is still pending in Parliament.

“The country’s executive branch [leadership] should take responsibility for damage caused by this vacuum,” Sutin said.

The Democrats, meanwhile, support medical marijuana but not free trade in the herb, said party MP Dr Banyat Chetanachan.

The Democrat Party is also part of the ruling coalition.

“I feel that [Public Health Minister and Bhumjaithai leader] Anutin Charnvirakul’s plan encourages recreational use of marijuana,” he said.

Opposition Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s stance on marijuana is even tougher. He believes cannabis should be relisted as a narcotic.

“We should comply with the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,” he said.

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Possible scenarios

Cannabis plantations have mushroomed around the country in the hope of capitalizing on the potentially lucrative industry.

Many businesses have added cannabis to food, cosmetics, wellness services and more.

Sutin said he would take all impacts into account when pushing for cannabis to be reserved for medical and research purposes only.

“If possible, we will relist cannabis as a narcotic, but if that creates a big problem, we will prepare remedial actions and give the affected parties time to adjust,” he said.

The Democrats’ Banyat said that if the party is elected to government, he will ask the Public Health permanent secretary and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief to set up a center to assess all impacts.

“Then we can ask the Narcotics Control Board to issue a new decision based on the information gathered,” he said.

In his opinion, the current legal vacuum has created ripe conditions for exploitation of the marijuana market. The vacuum also offers a loophole for people operating shady businesses to launder their ill-gotten gains, he believes.

“I think we should prepare three new bills – one for medical marijuana, another for the use of hemp, and a third for the use of marijuana for non-medical purposes. Let the public debate the last bill,” Banyat said.

Move Forward leader Pita said the public should still be able to access marijuana’s benefits through certain laws that limit the herb’s uses. However, cannabis should definitely be categorized as a narcotic to protect members of the public.

He said that if cannabis is not considered a narcotic, then the Public Health Ministry will have to take charge of enforcing laws related to the herb.

However, this would pose a problem.

“The Public Health Ministry does not have enough resources or personnel to handle this. If we let the ministry do this job, the laws will not really be enforced in practice,” Pita said.

But if cannabis were to be relisted as an illicit drug, the police and the Office of the Narcotics Control Board could take charge of enforcing the law.

Pita notes that this move would damage some marijuana businesses. Hence, the new government should come up with remedies to help them, like buying up all their cannabis stock for use in the medical industry, he said

Bhumjaithai digs its heels in

Bhumjaithai, which made legalization of marijuana its core election policy four years ago, has vowed to not backtrack.

“Cannabis has good value. It can be utilized for several purposes, including driving economic growth. If you vote for us this time, we will make sure cannabis is not blocked,” the party’s registrar and party-list MP Suphachai Jaismut said.

Anutin has pointed out that the Narcotics Control Board, which is chaired by Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, approved the removal of cannabis from the country’s narcotics list. Hence, he said, there was no reason to backtrack. Anutin’s slogan for the election is “Yes to Free Trade on Marijuana. Let’s use it for medicine, health and the economy”.

FDA secretary-general Dr Paisarn Dunkum said if cannabis was placed back on the narcotics list, products would have to be pulled from the market because they contain cannabis.

“Currently, more than 2,200 health products have cannabis as an ingredient,” he said.

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What the public says

The Association of Researchers of Thailand has submitted 6,000 signatures in support of marijuana legalization to Anutin. It says that cannabis has medical benefits and the many opportunities it offers will be wasted if it is relisted as a narcotic.

On the other hand, there are growing concerns that marijuana usage has become so widespread that people may consume it accidentally. Some shops use cannabis as an ingredient without openly informing customers, which poses a danger to those who may suffer strong reactions to the herb.

Several medical associations and civic networks also believe cannabis should be banned again before its recreational use gets out of hand. Estimates indicate that last year alone, up to 11 million Thais used cannabis for recreational purposes following decriminalization. This includes not just smoking pot, but adding it to beverages, foods, etc. The figure jumped by more than 900% from 2021.

Dr Bundit Sornpaisarn, a scientist at the Institute for Medical Health Policy Research in Canada’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health, said members of the public should declare their stance on the subject to help the government solve the problem.

“You should tell politicians exactly what you want. Make it clear if you want medical marijuana policy or recreational marijuana,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk