Southeast Asia has a reputation for having some of the world’s toughest drug laws. In recent years, however, Thailand has been bucking the trend by decriminalising cannabis and freeing people convicted under earlier laws. In 2021, new health care legislation was also passed to combat the marginalization of drug users and encourage rehabilitation programs.
Back in 2018, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to legalise cannabis for medical use, though its use in other contexts remained tightly regulated. The reasoning behind this new legislation was mainly economic, as the government hoped that the production of strictly-medical cannabis would boost the agricultural and medical sectors of the nation’s economy.
In 2022, the legality of cannabis changed again when Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration legalised the possession, consumption, production and sale of ingestible products containing less than 0.2% THC. In June of that year, the Thai government even gave away 1 million free cannabis plants to citizens. Its motivation for doing so was once again economic. Although many laws on THC consumption remained in effect, the government recognised the potential for cannabis to become a major cash crop and aid the recovery of its tourism industry following the pandemic.
In a region where many countries severely punish weed consumption, including with the death penalty, Thailand’s more relaxed policies began to attract tourists hoping to experiment with the substance. By the end of 2022, the country’s cannabis market was worth $800 million.
Kueakarun Thongwilai, who manages a weed shop in central Bangkok, noted that 70 to 80 percent of his customers are foreigners. While most come from nearby Asian countries such as Japan, Malaysia, China and the Philippines, many others come from throughout Europe.
Cannabis Businesses Spring Up
While consuming cannabis products below the 0.2% THC threshold has been decriminalised, smoking marijuana in public areas remains illegal in Thailand. Under the Public Health Act, violating this law can result in severe penalties, including an $800 fine and up to three months of jail time.
Despite these risks, thousands of weed businesses have opened across Thailand, including cannabis-based massage centers, dinner cruises, lounges, cafes, bars and more. In many popular tourist destinations, this once tightly-regulated substance is now as widely available and easy to access as coffee.
Since its decriminalisation, over 1 million Thai residents have become registered cannabis growers. Additionally, as of February 2023, approximately 6,000 licenses have been issued for cannabis-related businesses, including over 1,600 in Bangkok alone. According to estimates from the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the new cash crop is predicted to be worth over $1 billion by 2025.
Political Tensions Surrounding Cannabis Access
Despite its profitability, the future of cannabis in Thailand is far from certain. In the months following its decriminalisation, rising crime rates, an influx of illegal foreign imports and fears surrounding the impact of cannabis on children and pregnant women have put the industry in “a state of regulatory limbo.”
By January 2023, roughly six months after cannabis products became legal, the number of people across Thailand considered addicted to the drug had risen nearly fourfold. In the eyes of many cannabis opponents, the Thai government itself stood to blame for the spike in addictions, as it had failed to establish formal laws prior to the decriminalisation. Even cannabis advocates admit that the lack of clear regulations made the transition process “messy and unplanned.”
The success of the Move Forward Party in the May 2023 election raised new questions about the future of cannabis in the region. Since taking office, Thailand’s new prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, has made clear that he intends to return cannabis to its former status of being legal for “medical reasons only.”
“The problem of drugs has been widespread lately, especially in the northeastern and northern parts of Thailand,” the prime minister said. “The law will need to be rewritten. It needs to be rectified. We can have that regulated for medical use only.”
Many businesspeople who entered the cannabis market once it became legal are now fearful that the government might place marijuana back on the list of banned narcotic substances. In an interview with news platform Al Jazeera, Aphichai Techanitisawad, founder and CEO of cannabis seller Grasshopper, expressed his concern about how reversing the law would disrupt the nation’s economy.
“I’ve invested about $1 million already,” said Techanitisawad. “If it becomes illegal again, I will have to stop the investment and find a market elsewhere.”
Others, however, consider it unlikely that the government would attempt to shut down an industry with such clear economic potential. From the perspective of many in the cannabis business, what Thailand needs is not to re-criminalise cannabis, but rather to adopt clear policies to control cannabis-related crimes and combat addiction without sacrificing the industry’s economic benefits.
From Penalty to Treatment
Back in 2003, Thailand’s “war on drugs” attracted the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee because of the alarmingly high number of killings and inhumane “treatments” forced upon drug users. Since being passed in December 2021, however, Thailand’s Narcotics Law has worked to shift treatment programs away from the punishment and stigmatization of drug users toward community-based treatment centers that emphasize users’ dignity and rehabilitation.
Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) recognized the 2021 law as a step in the right direction for Thailand’s drug management policies, the organisation hopes to continue working closely with the Thai government to shut down the remaining compulsory treatment centers, which it considers both an ineffective response to addiction and a violation of human rights.
“Now people are allowed alternatives,” explained UNDOC representative Karen Peters. “It is not an ideal choice, but they are given the choice to attend a treatment facility or go to prison.” For this year’s World Drug Day on 26 June, UNDOC chose the theme: “People First: Ending Stigma and Discrimination, Strengthening Prevention.”
As it continues to promote and develop more community-led treatment programs, Thailand is hoping to become a model for other countries in the region facing similar drug problems.
Article by Fatima Abuzar.
Editing by Anrike Visser.
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