In most of Asia, marijuana possession and consumption are still criminal offenses that can have significant consequences. In Singapore, long known for its draconian morality laws, some drug crimes come with 10 to 30 years of prison. Some drug trafficking convictions can yield the death penalty. While Singapore’s hardline stance is particularly well-known, it separates itself from many of its neighbors more in degree than outlook.
One notable outlier is Thailand. Nearly a year ago, Thailand became the first Asian country to decriminalize cannabis. Unfortunately, that decision was not attended by additional measures to regulate cannabis consumption and possession, leading to confusion and a legal gray area for retailers and consumers. Still, the wildly popular move turned Thailand into a cannabis tourism destination, leading to an economic boom in many popular areas of an already tourist-friendly nation.
Now, following months of political upheaval, new coalition government leaders are vowing to reverse course and are considering whether to end the ongoing decriminalization of cannabis in Thailand. Locals, tourists, and the people making money in the booming Thai cannabis industry are holding their breath, waiting to see where the new government’s drug policy demands take them.
New Government, New Policy
August’s Thai general elections resulted in the formation of an 11-party collation government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. While the progressive, youthful, and 420-friendly Move Forward party won a plurality of the votes in that contest, an attempted coalition with the center-right Pheu Thai Party collapsed, leaving it unable to govern. Second-place finisher Pheu Thai then assembled its own coalition led by the nation’s right-wing and center-right parties, with Srettha as its prime minister. The real estate tycoon built much of his platform on a tough anti-drug stance, routinely knocking the government’s landmark cannabis decriminalization policy, vowing to reduce the “drug menace” in Thailand, and seeking to crack down on the broader drug trafficking economy in Southeast Asia. He has gone so far as to say it is time to rewrite Thai law.
Prime Minister Srettha does concede that wiping out medicinal cannabis is off the table, suggesting he favors keeping the laws surrounding cannabis use for medical purposes on the books. Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2018. Medicinal cannabis must contain less than .2 percent THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana.
Inside the Thai government, former Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who supported cannabis decriminalization, has a new role. Now serving as Minister of the Interior, Anutin says he is attempting to submit a new bill to parliament that would help control adult use of cannabis, saying he is opposed to classifying the substance as an illegal narcotic again. Unfortunately, if the new prime minister gets his way, the bill is fated to die in parliament. Cannabis could once again be illegal, subjecting people to harsh criminal penalties and driving recreational cannabis use back underground, potentially inflating the country’s war on drugs.
The Economic Impact of Criminalizing Cannabis
Thailand’s decriminalization of marijuana was far from perfect. In fact, it was such an incomplete process that it created many unexpected legal grey areas. Pop-up cannabis shops quickly flooded the market with little regulation to ensure retailer and consumer protection. However, the regulatory vacuum created by a lack of government oversight and regulation became an economic boom for the nation. Although cannabis products served at cafes and restaurants must contain less than .2 percent THC, many retailers sell much more potent products, and the government has done little since decriminalizing cannabis to regulate the budding industry.
So far, the novelty of recreational cannabis shows no signs of stopping. One estimate finds that in just one year, there were nearly 12,000 registered cannabis dispensaries in the country. Thailand’s cannabis industry could generate as much as $1.68 billion by 2025, according to calculations by the Bangkok Post. The cannabis industry and cannabis tourism have become so popular in Thailand that, despite threats from the government, some companies are continuing to invest in the market. Siam Green says they plan to open three or four more cannabis dispensaries, expanding the company’s operations and spending an additional $5 million on farming and retail outlets. Another company based out of Israel opened a $3 million indoor cannabis farm in Bangkok, hoping their efforts would position the company as a long-term player in Thailand.
Many see cannabis reform in Thailand as an economic boom for the country. However, data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime calls Thailand the epicenter of the illegal narcotic trafficking trade in the region. Estimates put the drug trafficking economy in Southeast Asia at close to $130 billion, far outpacing legal sales of cannabis. The image that Thailand is the heart of the illegal drug trafficking market in Asia has spurred many conservative lawmakers into taking action to recriminalize the drug. The new prime minister and others in parliament believe that outlawing recreational marijuana is step one to combatting the illegal drug trade.
Does Outlawing Drugs Work?
There is significant debate over whether criminalizing drugs like cannabis helps or hurts society. For decades, wealthy nations have led an international “war on drugs,” fighting tooth and nail to outlaw possession and consumption and enacting stiff penalties for those who fall afoul of the law. Here in the U.S., strict drug policies disproportionally impact low-income households and tend to target people of color. Numerous studies conducted by various agencies and social activist organizations show that the tough-on-drugs-stance hurts people of color and increases incarceration rates for Hispanics and African Americans. Additionally, the drug war may not be as effective at curbing illegal drug use as politicians believe.
Some studies indicate that criminalizing drug use and incarcerating people for minor drug offenses does not decrease the presence of the underground drug market, and the illegal status of drugs may increase the dangers of consuming these substances. Many argue that regulating drugs and allowing the government to control quality standards creates safer societies with fewer drug-related crimes. It may also help decrease drug-related deaths from consuming drugs cut with dangerous substances. Drug prohibition, especially in the case of cannabis, could do more harm than good in modern society. Some also argue the trillion dollars the United States has spent fighting the war on drugs could have been put to better use and has not paid off in the form of a few drugs on the street.
Of course, Thailand is a very different nation than the United States, with its own history and social norms surrounding the cultivation, sale, and consumption of narcotics. Yet there are parallels between the countries, especially in the generational, socio-economic, and regional political coalitions contesting overall drug policy. Who will win out? Only time will tell. But as always, Cannabutter Digest will continue to report on the developments.