New Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is making good on his “tough on drugs” campaign threats. Thailand’s government is forging ahead with passing new legislation to ban recreational cannabis only 18 months after the country decriminalized the substance. The move should come as no surprise. Even before he was elected, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin made his anti-drug stance well known, routinely criticizing the country’s decriminalization policy and vowing that if he took office, he would eliminate the “drug menace” from Thailand.
In August, Thailand’s political landscape took a dramatic shift, and now conservative leaders in the country are pushing to prohibit recreational cannabis use. The move is sure to anger some, draw praise from others, and cause significant upheaval in a budding cannabis industry that was poised to generate nearly $1.68 billion by 2025, according to calculations by the Bangkok Post.
What’s next for cannabis in Thailand? It’s time for the Thai public to weigh in.
Government Moves to Ban Recreational Marijuana
Thailand was the first Asian country to decriminalize marijuana. Almost immediately after the decision, pop-up cannabis shops started to flourish, offering locals and tourists alike a massive range of cannabis products. Some estimates indicate that in one year, 12,000 registered cannabis dispensaries dotted the small country. Unfortunately, these shops operate in a type of legal gray area. Thai officials decriminalized marijuana. However, they did not establish formal groundwork for licensing and regulating the sale of marijuana. Despite a lack of formal rules and regulations governing the marijuana industry, the cannabis industry has flourished in the country, drawing heavy cannabis tourism from other countries.
That may all be about to change if Thailand’s new government has anything to say about it. Recently, the country’s new leadership forged ahead with legislation designed to ban recreational cannabis use in the county. The draft bill released by Thailand’s health ministry outlines stiff fines and prison sentences of up to one year for those convicted of recreational cannabis consumption. Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew supports the measure, saying, “All recreational usage is wrong.” The bill attempts to deliver on Prime Minister Srettha’s promise to “rectify” cannabis laws in Thailand. Although decriminalization measures relaxed marijuana laws, smoking marijuana in public remained illegal. The new legislation seeks to prohibit recreational cannabis use altogether by banning advertising and marketing for cannabis and cannabis products.
What Comes Next?
Thai officials canvass the country, seeking public opinion on the draft measure. The public and industry leaders have until January 23rd to share their thoughts on the measure before the health minister submits a final proposal to the Cabinet and then the Parliament. Although feedback from the public is welcome, it is unclear whether public opinion is enough to sway a government seemingly already convinced that marijuana is a plague and recreational use must be prohibited and strictly punished.
Already, cannabis advocates and business owners are expressing confusion and outrage at the new legislation. Many entrepreneurs worry about the legislation’s impact on the highly lucrative cannabis industry in the country. Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, a Thai cannabis advocate, says that businesses will need to make rapid adjustments or risk jail. Additionally, they can choose to go back underground, a similarly risky proposition.
For those making their living from recreational cannabis, the dramatic policy shift is jarring. Locals, business owners, entrepreneurs, and numerous foreign investors risk losing money and potentially their livelihood if the measure makes its way to fruition.
Pro-legalization advocates in the country say the cannabis boom has helped farmers and small businesses capitalize on tourism. They say prohibiting cannabis would hurt the growing multi-million-dollar industry. For many, it feels like the government is attempting to put the genie back in the bottle, which rarely works without significant consequences.
Some statistics indicate Thailand’s cannabis policy may have allowed the country to reach over one billion dollars in 2024 and make the country a global player in the cannabis industry. Shutting down an entire industry and imposing significant financial and criminal penalties on cannabis business owners could cause financial instability and leave many Thai business owners struggling to shift gears and make ends meet in the meantime.
Unfortunately, the legislation could also lead to a rise in drug trafficking and illegal, underground drug trading. Individuals and businesses could attempt to rid themselves of their now-illegal cannabis products by flooding the illegal market and attempting to recover at least some profit so they don’t lose everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve when the previous administration decriminalized marijuana. It is a frightening and painful choice some cannabis businesses may have to make.
New Rules for Medicinal Cannabis?
While the government looks to criminalize marijuana, leaders say they will focus on promoting cannabis policies for medicinal purposes instead. Medical marijuana has been legal in the Asian country since 2018. Patients wanting to use cannabis for medical purposes must obtain a prescription from a medical practitioner to obtain marijuana with .2 percent or more THC.
So far, government officials signal they have no intention of rewriting the country’s medicinal cannabis laws. Thailand’s Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew says the new legislation was drafted to “prohibit the wrong use of cannabis.” For the time being, medical cannabis reform is off the table.
Cannabis in Asia
If the Thai government makes good on its promise to ban recreational cannabis, cannabis consumption will be relegated to back alleys and medical clinics once again. Asian countries have some of the strictest marijuana and drug laws on the books. Singapore maintains the death penalty for drug trafficking. In Hong Kong, even CBD is illegal. Japan recently relaxed its medicinal marijuana regulations while simultaneously increasing penalties for recreational consumption and inhalation.
While many countries in the Americas and Europe are considering innovative marijuana reform policies for cannabis advocates and investors, Thailand’s attempt to ban cannabis feels like a significant step backward.
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