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Thailand’s experiment with weed goes up in smoke

Cannabis use in Thailand

After four years of support from the ruling coalition government, Thailand is expected to vote against the decriminalisation of marijuana in Sunday’s general election. The current free-for-all and weed shops lining the busy tourist streets appears unlikely to continue in the months after the election and a new parliament is settled.

Almost all of the political parties involved in the 2023 national election are in favour of returning to the previous policies of marijuana prohibition and confining its use to medicinal purposes only. Only one party is still seeking some sort of policy that would allow and regulate recreational use.

The changes in policies comes amid rising concerns over the negative societal impact of an open-slather approach to cannabis use. The decriminalisation has also been botched by a lack of details, leading to a legal vacuum, with no regulations in place covering the recreational use of the drug in Thailand.

Thailand has been seen as a vanguard in the decriminalisation of cannabis. Other parts of Asia are also beginning to warm up to a softer approach to cannabis.

Thailand legalised marijuana cultivation for home use in 2022, while South Korea, Japan and Malaysia are paving the way for pharmaceutical applications. But in Thailand, without any legal framework, entrepreneurs and weed-activist went ahead and assumed they could open up retail stores and sell the drug to anyone passing by.

As the original supporter, Thailand’s public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, has said often since last year’s decriminalisation, “that was never the intention” of the change in the law. Some enthusiasts claim that “it’s too late” and that it will be impossible to “get the toothpaste back in the tube”. But without any legal framework supporting the current wild-west approach to the herb, it’s unlikely that any ongoing free-for-all would be supported by any political party.

With the world wide weed market estimated to be a $100 billion industry by 2026, according to research firm Prohibition Partners, regional businesses are preparing for demand from Asian consumers. Asia has been late to the table with cannais legislation and legalisation, whilst some of the countries still retain draconian punishment, even the death penalty, for use or trafficking.

This rise in the industry has caused farmers and other stakeholders to worry about the effect of rolling back legalisation on their livelihoods saying that they’d prefer cleaning up the current mess rather than returning to pre-decriminalisation days.

Buriram, a northeast province, is known as the “weed capital” of Thailand and has become a stronghold for the pro-cannabis party, Bhumjaithai, led by the mercurial public health minister and a current deputy PM.

Buriram is also the location where cannabis farmers and sellers are worried about losing their new source of income. Farmers have invested heavily in their growing operations, and in one acre of land, they can earn around 500,000 baht, compared to 8,000 baht for the same amount of rice. But none of the farmers are yet to realise any of the promised ‘fields of gold’ with imports making establishing the new crop difficult.

Despite projections of the opposition party winning the most seats, the pro-cannabis party Bhumjaithai is still in the running. Over the past three months both the party and its leader have barely scored more than 3% in any of the professional polls but local political pundits believe that Bhumjaithai could still win 50 or 60 seats in the next parliament (there are 500 MP seats in the lower house of the Thai parliament)

The Bhumjaithai leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, has vowed to ensure that the cannabis policy continues and some sort of Cannabis Bill will be pushed through the next parliament. But the opposition party, Pheu Thai, threatens to unravel the policy and re-list cannabis as a narcotic. It is advocating to guard against recreational use that, it says, is corrupting Thai youth.

Even the progressive Move Forward Party, which has advocated for liberalisation in most areas, seeks to return to square one before gradually allowing a wider use of cannabis use again.

All parties have expressed their concern about the drug’s effects on the youth and society in general, even Anutin.

The Thai general election will be held on Sunday, May 14.

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