Thailand’s New PM Vows to End the ‘Free Use’ of Cannabis

(Bloomberg) -- Thailand’s new prime minister vowed to restrict the use of marijuana for medical purposes after thousands of weed shops opened across the country since the nation became the first in Asia to decriminalize cannabis a year ago.

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The government will seek to “rectify” its cannabis policy and rampant sprouting of dispensaries that freely sell the drug within a six-month time frame, Srettha Thavisin said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haslinda Amin on Wednesday in New York.

“The law will need to be rewritten,” Srettha said. “It needs to be rectified. We can have that regulated for medical use only,” he said, adding that there can’t be a middle ground for recreational use.

While Srettha said there was a broad agreement among the 11-party coalition he heads about the need to restrict cannabis use, how exactly his administration will proceed remains unclear.

Srettha’s Pheu Thai Party promoted a hard-line anti-drug campaign ahead of the May election and vowed to undo the landmark policy to decriminalize cannabis. It’s now in a coalition with Bhumjaithai Party led by Anutin Charnvirakul, who has vowed to press ahead with a plan to reintroduce a cannabis bill in parliament that seeks tighter monitoring of the industry but opposes classifying the plant as a drug again.

An ongoing regulatory vacuum, following the move to declassify marijuana as a narcotic, has led to a mushrooming of nearly 6,000 dispensaries all over the country. They sell everything from cannabis buds to oil extracts containing less than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive compound that gives users a “high” sensation.

Lighting Up

While recreational smoking hasn’t been outlawed under current rules, lighting up in public is prohibited. Other restrictions include bans on causing unpleasant smells in public, selling to pregnant women or people under 20 and commercial advertising.

Thai farmers are also allowed to freely grow cannabis after registering with the nation’s Food and Drug Administration. Local dispensary owners have also complained about unbridled imports and depressing prices.

The cannabis industry was unfazed by the move to reimpose controls. The medical benefits of cannabis already blur the lines between health and recreational use, effectively rendering any ban on leisure unfeasible, according to Poonwarit Wangpatravanich, president of the Phuket Cannabis Association.

A ban would also hinder the economic benefits of Thailand’s budding cannabis tourism, not to mention shutting down dispensaries that have already mushroomed all over the country, which may potentially dent the government’s popularity, he said.

Here to Stay

“More regulation will be good as we don’t want a free-for-all anyway,” Poonwarit said. “Cannabis is here to stay, but in what status is not yet clear.”

Classifying cannabis as a narcotic again, as opposed to regulating the industry, will risk pushing recreational use underground where there will be even less control, said Rattapon Sanrak, founder of cannabis advocacy group Highland Network.

Srettha’s government has vowed to “eradicate” drugs from Thai society, with the prime minister saying he will “decisively reduce” the menace within a year while presiding over an event to destroy narcotics that were confiscated by authorities earlier this week.

Thailand is considered the main conduit for drug trafficking along Southeast Asia’s vast Mekong river valley, with enforcement agencies perceived to often turn a blind eye. Southeast Asia’s organized crime economy, including the illicit trade in drugs and wildlife, was worth an estimated $130 billion in 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes.

“The problem of drug has been widespread lately, especially in the northeastern and northern parts of Thailand,” Srettha said. “And we don’t need another issue added on top of that.”

(Updates with details on current controls in seventh paragraph.)

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