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Thailand’s cannabis shambles

This week the Thai PM Srettha Thavisin’s announced that he wants the country to reverse the 2022 decision to decriminalise cannabis. And he wants it by the end of this year.

The announcement has sparked confusion and frustration among Thailand’s cannabis community.

They are criticising the failed experiment, claiming that it has primarily favoured foreign investors and big businesses rather than nurturing a local cannabis industry – a popular promise from the, then, public health minister Anutin Charveerakul.

Although the PM’s insistence to a meeting on Wednesday, that they reverse the decision to decriminalise cannabis, was hardly a shock, it was said with a lot more force and urgency than in the past.

Initially touted as a means to benefit ordinary Thais, the decriminalisation led to a surge in supply, driving down prices and harming local growers. Many attribute this oversupply to the influx of cannabis from illegal sources, particularly from the US.

Piyatida Jantra, a small cannabis grower in Nakhon Ratchasima, expressed dismay at the dominance of larger enterprises driving down prices, making it difficult for small-scale producers like her to compete. She highlighted the vast difference between the prices at which they sell their products to shops compared to what the shops charge consumers.

Srettha’s recent announcement to reclassify cannabis as a narcotic by the end of 2024 has drawn criticism from both local and foreign cannabis enthusiasts and businesses. This move, if implemented, would re-criminalise possession and consumption, affecting not only consumers but also businesses that have flourished in the recreational cannabis market.

The intention of the PM’s directives is to limit cannabis to medicinal uses only.

Anutin Charnvirakul, who initially supported cannabis liberalisation, now warns that foreigners operating cannabis shops in places like Phuket could face legal repercussions once cannabis is again classified as a narcotic. He even went as far as saying that foreigners dabbling in cannabis business “would be arrested”.

But doubts linger regarding the feasibility and enforceability of such a policy shift, especially considering the significant investments already made in the cannabis sector. These businesses have flourished in a complete legal vacuum, risking huge investments to kick off Thailand’s nascent cannabis industry.

Legal challenges are expected from the 1000s of affected businesses, while questions arise about how the government plans to regulate an industry that has already proliferated.

The local Food and Drug Agency doesn’t have anywhere near the staff required to regulate or enforce any reversals of the current situation. And the The Narcotics Control Board would need huge new resources if it were to take any action on the estimated 6,000 – 8,000 cannabis retail stores around the country.

Despite the rumours of the impending crackdown and reversal, the political parties’ stated policies to get rid of “recreational cannabis”, and a wary electorate, Thailand’s cannabis market continues to thrive, with shops openly selling products containing THC levels well above the legal limit of 0.2%. In effect, ALL the shops have been operating outside the “spirit” of the original announcement since day one.

The absence of a Cannabis Act to regulate the industry has also contributed to legal ambiguity and confusion. Such is the confusion, local police have shown no willingness to get involved in crackdowns on foreign owners, flagrant abuses of the situation or sales of cannabis to minors (under 20 years of age).

For many, the uncertainty surrounding the future of cannabis in Thailand is leading to frustration and financial strain. While some welcome Srettha’s promise to reverse decriminalisation, others view it as exacerbating an already chaotic situation, with foreign entities profiting while local entrepreneurs struggle to survive.

A Cannabis Act, which would include the outlawing of recreational use, is scheduled to be presented to parliament in Q3 with a resolution on the matter by the end of this year.

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