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Cannabis in Thailand

Update 2024: Is Cannabis Still Legal in Thailand???

Thailand’s Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin has voiced his plans to make a U-Turn on policies which opened a recreational cannabis market and decriminalized the plant, less than two years after coming into place.
Hayley Smith
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One step forward, two steps back

Thailand was ahead of the game, as the first Asian country to legalize marijuana for medical use in 2018 and then the first to decriminalize for recreational use in 2022, creating an influx of stores, products, grow farms and industry all over the country. In January 2023 over 6000 dispensaries were registered and 3000 licenses were issued to sell, grow and process marijuana in Thailand, with many more unregistered market stalls, trucks and alike springing up all over the country. 

However, earlier this month the Prime Minister took to social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, saying “I want the health ministry to amend the rules and re-list cannabis as a narcotic“. 

The PM plans to implement these changes quickly and to reclassify cannabis as a ‘category five’ narcotic, which will make it a crime to produce, sell, import, export or possess the substance. This is a huge blow for all those who now have an interest in the market, which is projected to be worth more than 1.2 billion by 2025.

How has this happened, and why now?

The Pheu Thai Party is part of a conservative coalition government which came into power in May last year, headed by Thavisin. Since then, Thavisin has vowed to ‘rectify’ the policies which had previously been brought in by the Bhumjaithai Party who preceded him. Decriminalization was a major player in the election campaign of the former Bhumjaithai Party, who set out to provide new industry for the poverty-stricken Northeast of the country. 

Some argue that the legalization was rushed through and not properly planned, which has led to confusion around laws, regulations and improper taxation. Those not in favor of decriminalization argue that it has led to increased crime and problems among youth mental health in the country. 

The current PM claims that cannabis will still be allowed for health and medical purposes and speaks of the ministry quickly issuing a rule to enable this. Thavisin claims that drugs in Thailand are a major problem which destroys the lives and future of many people. The PM focuses on local authorities cracking down within ‘red zones’, which refers to 25 provinces across the nation, saying that he expects to see progress from authorities within 90 days. 

If recategorized as a ‘category five’ substance, possession of cannabis could bring a jail sentence of up to 15 years and a maximum fine of over $40,000 or 1.5 million baht, a significant punishment for something which was decriminalized less than two years ago. 

What does this mean for business owners and citizens?

Concerns have been raised that the changes could lead to class-action suits by business owners and street protests in major cities. A rally took place in November last year at Government House following news of the potential rollback of decriminalization due to the impact this would have on business and frustration from those who had fought for years for policy change and the right to smoke marijuana without harassment. 

A group of pro-cannabis advocates gathered at the Health Ministry, just outside of Bangkok, on Thursday the 16th of May to petition against the proposed changes. Prasitchai Nunuan, a representative from the group said that the demonstrators all agree that better regulation of the market is needed but that they were against the plans to reclassify marijuana as a narcotic. 

Many argue that the U-turn will cause a major drop in tourism and the entire economy, leaving many struggling and potentially without employment. 

Thousands of citizens have poured their heart, soul and savings into setting up cannabis-related businesses or farms. Having it taken away so quickly, likely without any compensation or support, is a huge disappointment which could leave farmers, in particular, in a dire situation. 

Concern is rife regarding the negative impact that re-criminalizing will have on the criminal justice system in terms of increased numbers, greater expenditure and more individuals with criminal records, as well as causing increased social stigma in the nation. 

Rattapon, an activist and owner of Bangkok dispensary ‘The Highland Cafe’, said that these sudden changes will have ripple effects throughout the cannabis industry worldwide. It is also a major concern that markets will be pushed underground which comes with issues around public safety, mainly associated with increased drug-related crime and gang activity.

Uncertainty and frustration remain for Thailand’s marijuana industry and citizens

The unclear, flip-flop approach to cannabis policy in Thailand created an unregulated market which has not allowed the communities to reap the potential benefits of legalization. 

In contrast to Thavisin’s concerns about public health, a recent study in the US, on the impact of marijuana legalization on teens, showed that legalization has not caused an increase in cannabis use or introduction to other substances. Instead, it led to an increased likelihood of zero cannabis use and a reduction in the use of alcohol and e-cigarettes.

Clearly, more evidence and studies on cannabis in Thailand, in comparison to alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs, are needed before big decisions like this are made on policy, but this seems unlikely given Thavisin’s recent comments. 

For now, it remains unclear when cannabis will be renamed as a category 5 narcotic and which processes will be involved to get there, but it seems the current government is set on pushing it through by the end of the year. 

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