11 July 2024

Thailand has spent more than six months trying to pass a law to control the use of cannabis, but this legal vacuum is likely to continue for some time.

Many lawmakers believe the Marijuana and Hemp Bill, which has already been shot down once, will not be passed during this Parliament, which is scheduled to be dissolved in March for a general election tentatively scheduled for May 7.

Meanwhile, the legal vacuum has spawned businesses ranging from plush cannabis emporiums to streetside spliff stalls to food trucks serving ganja-spiked hamburgers. Backpackers on Bangkok’s Khao San Road now have several cannabis parlors to choose from.

“This is happening because we don’t have a specific law governing the use of marijuana,” said Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn. “While the authorities have introduced some regulations to control marijuana use, enforcement is lax. Police don’t make arrests because they think they are not legally authorized to do so”.

Pot up for grabs

Cannabis was listed as a Category 5 narcotic until 2019 when the government lifted the ban and decided to legalize it for medical use. The herb’s journey toward full legalization, however, only gained momentum after the Bhumjaithai Party, whose leader Anutin Charnvirakul is now the public health minister, joined the ruling coalition.

The party made decriminalization of marijuana a central plank of its 2019 election campaign, and once in power, it pushed hard until cannabis was removed from the narcotics list.

On June 6 this year, the Public Health Ministry issued a regulation legalizing all parts of the plant.

Initially, Bhumjaithai blamed the failure to pass a law governing the use of the newly legalized herb on the COVID-19 crisis, including lockdown measures. Now, the party is blaming politicking for the prolonged legal vacuum and proliferation of recreational ganja use.

As complaints about the impacts of unregulated recreational use grew, particularly from the medical sector, the Public Health Ministry clamped down last month by declaring the herb’s potent buds a controlled substance.

“But many shops are still selling cannabis buds, and some of them are earning up to one million baht per day,” Somchai said.

Thai PM urged to reconsider decriminalisation of cannabis

Bill under doubt

Dr Smith Srisont, a member of the Medical Council, said he would still be worried about cannabis use in Thailand even if the marijuana bill passed in Parliament soon.

“If you check its content carefully, you find that it liberalizes cannabis here in Thailand even more than in countries where recreational use is permitted,” he said.

For instance, in Canada, the number of cannabis plants one person can grow is limited to four, while in Thailand, the bill intends to let the public grow as many as 15 plants per person. The US, meanwhile, places limits on how much cannabis one person can have in their possession, but Thailand does not.

“This draft law aims to allow people to use recreational marijuana openly because the use of medical marijuana has been allowed in Thailand since 2020,” Smith added.

Article 37/5 of the bill also states that a minister can designate a venue for pot smoking if it has been approved by the marijuana committee.

Smith said he was not against the consumption of marijuana for recreation, provided it is properly controlled. For example, Thailand must consider the consequences of children being exposed to the recreational consumption of marijuana and ban advertising, he said.

Bhumjaithai aims to turn marijuana into a cash crop for villagers and small-time farmers. However, Democrat Party MP Banyat Jetanachan dismisses this idea, arguing that large enterprises have already started monopolizing the market and will leave few benefits for small-time operators.

“But political parties continue pushing for the bill by claiming that small-scale farmers will benefit. It’s like the people are being used as pawns in this game,” he said.

Recreational marijuana

Banyat said the marijuana bill was written in such a way that it allows the recreational use of marijuana. He added that the Public Health Ministry’s failure to impose effective controls on marijuana use came from a conflict of interest.

“The ministry is not just a referee, it’s also a player,” Banyat pointed out.

The Public Health Ministry launched its own cannabis cultivation project in Buri Ram, Bhumjaithai’s stronghold earlier this year.

Thai medical organisations ask government to rethink cannabis legalisation

More harm than good?

A 2018 study on the effects of marijuana use in the US state of Colorado concluded that for every dollar earned in tax on sales of marijuana, the state spent $4.50 to treat the adverse impacts from its use. Colorado was one of the first US states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, in 2014.

Smith said the detrimental effects of ganja may not be visible overnight, but they would become apparent quite soon.

“If you consume marijuana today, you may still feel okay next year. But you may start feeling the consequences after 10 years,” the doctor said, adding that the use of marijuana by children can lead to heart disease, stunted intelligence and many other problems.

Anutin’s stance

Despite all the criticism, Anutin has stood firm in his policy to liberalize marijuana, dismissing all the concerns and attacks, including an online petition calling for legalization to be revoked.

“We can’t just backtrack,” the minister said. “People have made billion-baht investments in the marijuana sector. If we declare marijuana illegal again, our country will lose credibility and suffer serious economic damage.”

Relevant authorities should instead help to control the use of marijuana in line with regulations and guidelines, he said. They did not have to wait for the marijuana bill to be passed before putting proper controls in place, he added.

“Every person and organization has a duty to abide by rules and laws. If something is prohibited under a ministerial regulation, then it is prohibited. You don’t need to wait for a law to declare it illegal before taking action,” the minister said.

On Wednesday, the Senate postponed its second reading of the controversial marijuana bill to next week.

By Thai PBS World