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Thailand looks set to crack down on legal cannabis market

BANGKOK — Two years after Thailand legalized cannabis, the country appears ready to crack down on its free drug market by banning its “recreational” use.

Legal cannabis fueled Thailand tourism and agricultural professions and gave birth to thousands of green neon shopsbut it faces a public backlash over perceptions that underregulation has made drugs accessible to children and caused crime.

Health Minister Chonlanan Srikaew said last week that he had recommended to Cabinet a bill banning recreational cannabis use while allowing it for medical purposes. Cabinet is expected to approve the dismissal of this Parliament soon, but has yet to take it up at its latest meeting on Tuesday.

A bill that was circulated for public comment in January would make consuming cannabis “for entertainment or pleasure” a crime punishable by a fine of 60,000 baht (about $1,700). It would allow medical marijuana, but would not provide details on how it would be controlled.

Thailand was the first country in Asia to legalize cannabis. Decriminalization was spearheaded by the Bhumjaithai Party, which made it a major part of its platform during the 2019 general election campaign. The party’s stronghold is in the poor Northeast, where it promised farmers that the Cannabis would be a new cash crop.

Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul became health minister and an important member of the military-led coalition, pushing through an amendment to the Narcotics Act in 2022 that removed cannabis from the list of controlled drugs.

Anutin had promised that cannabis would be permitted only for medical purposes, but in practice the market was virtually unregulated.

The Ministry of Health issued regulations making cannabis a “controlled herb” requiring a license for planting or sale, and banning online sales, sales to pregnant women and people under 20, as well as smoking in public. But cannabis can be purchased easily by virtually anyone at many unlicensed establishments or online.

Thai media were quickly filled with reports of drug-fueled violence and abuse, including among young people, who were not supposed to have access to drugs.

The Department of Health reported an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for psychological problems related to cannabis, from more than 37,000 patients in fiscal year 2022 to more than 63,000 patients in 2023. Other studies showed that more young people were using the drug.

During the 2023 election campaign, all major parties – including Bhumjaithai – promised to limit cannabis to medical use.

Kalyapat Rachitroj, an MP from the opposition Move Forward party and a medical graduate, said the plant has economic benefits and is used in health care for pain relief and for terminally ill patients. But, she says, the widespread use of recreational cannabis has created social problems such as drug addiction among young people.

Given the current situation, “we have no choice but to reclassify marijuana as a narcotic.”

Cannabis advocates and entrepreneurs oppose a radical rollback.

Chokwan “Kitty” Chopaka, a cannabis store owner and activist in Bangkok, acknowledged problems with cannabis use but said they were due to lax enforcement of existing regulations.

She said many officials still consider cannabis a dangerous narcotic. “Where we, on the other hand, see it as a plant. It’s an herb. This is something that we have traditionally had for a very long time.

Rattapon Sanrak, the founder of Thailand’s first legal cannabis store, said it would be an overreaction to put cannabis back on the list of narcotics.

He also said the move would be impractical, if not impossible, given the scale of the industry’s growth.

“I don’t think anyone disagrees with controlling the use of minor children. Nobody wants to see people smoking weed in the street,” he said. “The sellers… also don’t want to see these street vendors selling without a license. »

He called for more discussions on how best to control the drug.

“People who don’t like it, people who are users, people who run businesses, I think these parties need to find common ground on how to exist together.”

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