Last month, Thailand’s government made history when it became the first south-east Asian country to effectively legalise the cultivation and personal use of cannabis – reversing years of hard-line drug policies. The move was spear-headed by the country’s Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, in an attempt to appease struggling farmers and gain political approval. But, while the reform was initially celebrated by the majority, dissatisfied rumblings have broken through the surface, leaving the government and Mr Charnvirakul, in particular, facing harsh criticism from the opposition party.
Before we get into the ongoing controversy of Thailand’s fledgling cannabis economy, let’s first take a look at how this situation came to be in the first place.
Thailand’s Cannabis Story
Thailand, like many south-east Asian countries, has had a complicated and many say over-zealous approach to drugs for a long time. In fact, until quite recently, drug traffickers were routinely sentenced to death – a practise that continues in a number of countries in the region.
Up until 9th June this year, cannabis was listed as a class 5 narcotic under Thailand’s drug regulations. People caught in possession of even small amounts of cannabis for personal use could find themselves facing prison time and significant fines. But now, reforms have come thick and fast in Thailand, and from a conservative governing party – a fact that has surprised many around the world. So, what led to the apparent 180-spin on cannabis policy?
A number of factors likely influenced the Thai government when making their decisions on cannabis reforms. Firstly, there were good political reasons for loosening cannabis restrictions – particularly when it came to cultivation. Many farmers in Thailand have been struggling for years to earn a living with sugar and rice yields alone and were in desperate need of another ‘cash crop’. Enter Anutin Charnvirakul whose political party has its stronghold in the poor region of the rural north-east. The legalisation of cannabis cultivation appealed to many voters who saw it as an opportunity to increase their income.
Many politicians in Thailand had also backed moves that would make medical cannabis more accessible for patients. While medical cannabis was legalised in 2018, many patients were still struggling to access the medications – as seen in many countries around the world. Decriminalising the cultivation and use of cannabis was seen as a way to resolve this issue. Patients would now be able to grow their own medicine, in addition to selling any surplus product back to the country’s medical industry.
Finally, Thai lawmakers, including Mr Charnvirakul, had high hopes for the additional revenue that could be collected with the launch of a new kind of tourism – cannabis tourism. There has been talk of introducing a whole new industry in Thailand which could see tourists flocking to the country for ‘cannabis treatments’. Cannabis has played a role in traditional Thai medicine and massage therapy for thousands of years. These practices continued – albeit under the radar – despite the prohibition of the crop. Now though, therapists and the government alike could start to profit from the industry.
Given all the apparent benefits of the recent policy change, it might be difficult to understand where the controversy is coming from. Why exactly are opposition MPs criticising the reforms?
Thailand’s Cannabis Controversy
This week, a censure debate took place in Thailand’s parliament in which the government was subjected to questioning from the opposition MPs. Much of the questioning was directed to the Minister for Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, who was accused of “causing social problems and violating local and international laws” with his cannabis policies.
The crux of the controversy surrounding the decriminalisation of cannabis is the issue of regulation. Many have criticised the way in which the policy was introduced, citing a lack of supporting legislation and regulatory framework – and it appears these claims are not altogether misplaced. While the global cannabis community was quick to applaud and congratulate Thailand for its progressive approach to cannabis policy, authorities within the Kingdom have been less than impressed with the guidance provided by the government.
Mr Anutin’s campaign video referring to the decriminalisation of cannabis prior to the move was played to MPs in parliament. In the video, Charnvirakul states that Bhumjaithai (Charnvirakul’s political party) would “bring happiness to people by allowing them to grow cannabis. Cannabis would be sold and used to make food and prevent and treat illness, and even be smoked in private.”
According to Sutin Klungsang, the chief opposition whip from the Pheu Thai Party, these statements violated international cannabis law. There are also concerns that the reform has pitted Thailand against many of its ASEAN neighbours, where cannabis remains strictly prohibited.
But opposition accusations don’t end there. According to reports by The Thaiger, it is largely accepted among political pundits that Anutin’s decriminalisation of cannabis was more about securing the stability of his party’s parliamentary sway than it was about a genuine attempt at effective reform.
Confusion and Concern among Authorities
Despite gaining significant coverage globally, many people – both in Thailand and further afield – are still confused about what is actually permitted. While Charnvirakul appeared to give the green light to the personal smoking of cannabis in his campaign video, the government claims it is discouraging this form of consumption. Furthermore, it is still illegal to sell or supply cannabis products containing more than 0.2% THC – a rule that is difficult to enforce without suitable regulation.
This confusion has left police and other authorities scrambling to update their own policies with – they say – little support from the government. But there are hopes that the situation will be resolved soon. In fact, lawmakers are expected to pass a new law that would introduce punishments for cannabis abuse and also specify rules around cannabis products. The law was expected to pass earlier this year but stalled due to a fresh wave of Coronavirus.
During the censure debate earlier this week, Anutin Charnvirakul apologised for some of his remarks regarding cannabis during his campaign. He also clarified the government’s position on the decriminalisation of cannabis, stating that the recreational use of cannabis is not permitted under the new policy and that the reform is designed only to boost cannabis production for medical and economic purposes.
Nonetheless, Charnvirakul also stressed that he believes decriminalisation was still the right option for Thailand. He pointed out to opposition MPs that being too worried about cannabis use would delay national development. “I believe everyone understands that the proper use of cannabis for medical purposes will give people a better opportunity to be treated with Thai herbs,” he said.
The debate on cannabis decriminalisation continues in Thailand – among politicians and citizens alike. Until supporting laws and regulations are passed and implemented in the country, it remains unclear how decriminalisation will be enforced. But one thing seems clear – despite the controversy surrounding the reform, cannabis products will continue to become more widely available across the nation.
The no-confidence motion facing the Thai government will also target waste in public funding and mishandling of Thailand’s Covid-19 restrictions, with votes set to be taken on Saturday (23rd July).