Bhumjaithai's cannabis legalisation policy has backfired

Bhumjaithai's cannabis legalisation policy has backfired

File photo dated June 10, 2022 shows Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul attends a campaign to give away 1 million free cannabis plants in Buri Ram Province.
File photo dated June 10, 2022 shows Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul attends a campaign to give away 1 million free cannabis plants in Buri Ram Province.

Cannabis legalisation -- a policy platform of the Bhumjaithai Party (BJP) -- was groundbreaking in many ways. The BJP should be proud of fulfilling its electoral promise to voters regarding the legalisation.

While many political parties struggle to deliver electoral promises, in two years the BJP managed to complete the legalisation of cannabis and remove the plant from the narcotics list. But the policy has backfired and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul -- BJP leader -- who previously received roses from pro-cannabis groups, has been under pressure from all directions.

Mr Anutin is among 10 ministers targeted by censure debate motions starting today. He has been accused of trying to push forward the cannabis policy at any cost and has been further grilled by the Move Forward Party (MFP), which will release a leaked official memo related to the cannabis policy.

Not long after June 9, when cannabis was removed from the narcotics list, a number of cases of the misuse of the plant for recreational and food consumption were reported.

There has been worrying news of students smoking weed or eating snacks with cannabis as ingredients. There have been reports of cannabis being sold on the streets plus news of people accidentally consuming foods and beverages with cannabis ingredients.

The cannabis liberalisation that the public health ministry championed and fast-tracked has been widely attacked by civic groups. Medical profession groups such as the Rural Doctor Society have called on the government to implement urgent measures to regulate cannabis use.

Despite the BJP explaining in detail that the policy will aim to assist those who use weed for medical purposes, the party's 2019 electoral campaign promised more. They promised that if elected, they'd create a law to let a family grow six marijuana plants at home, while reportedly telling voters that cannabis is the country's new cash crop to help increase family incomes.

After becoming public health minister, Mr Anutin made an all-out effort to realise the party's electoral promise.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) firstly swiped cannabis from the narcotics list under the narcotic law. As a result, all parts of the cannabis plant -- except its buds and seeds -- were no longer considered a narcotic so people could use them for culinary treats and medical treatment.

To regulate the use, the Ministry of Public Health requires that cannabis harvesting must be approved by the state. That legislation was made law on Dec 15, 2020 -- some 20 months after the 2019 election.

It must be said that this regulation is for helping patients and traditional medicine practitioners use cannabis for medical purposes but it was not for household cultivation. Under this regulation, only universities, hospitals, state-owned agencies and community enterprises were allowed to have plantations for research and commercial trade purposes.

Households were recommended to form a community enterprise and get approval from the state if they wanted to cultivate cannabis. The volume of harvests must be also reported to the public health ministry to prevent illegal plantations or illicit trading.

In short, the Dec 15, 2020 ministerial regulation didn't fulfil the BJP's electoral promise that it would let people grow six cannabis plants at home.

Therefore, the public health ministry issued new ministerial regulations a year after. The new ministerial law issued on Feb 9, announced that all cannabis parts -- except for the THC concentration -- are not regarded as narcotics.

This ministerial code is a big step that led to the full-scale legislation of cannabis; it is no longer just for medical treatment that the ministry advocated. After the ministerial regulation came into effect on June 9, all households can plant cannabis without having to seek state permission.

But there have been warnings from professional organisations, civil society and academics over the broader regulation due to concerns about the impact of cannabis on people's health, especially pregnant women and young children.

The draft law on cannabis oversight was sent to the Lower House in June -- when cannabis was already legalised.

The question is: Why didn't the public health minister foresee the unwanted consequences of the cannabis policy that his political party initiated?

Mr Anutin refused to delay the regulation, saying that the ministry had prepared all measures to prevent any improper cannabis use.

"We won 40-50 seats in the previous general election due to our free cannabis for medical treatment policy. That is the reason why we can't ignore the policy," Mr Anutin once told the media, adding that from now on any issue about cannabis is under the responsibility of the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine.

The Ministry of Public Health opened a pandora's box and pushed the country to the point of no return. While some patients have got the benefits they deserved from cannabis, other people have had to bear the consequences of this haphazard policy which has led to misuse.

The ministry is also to blame -- it had two years to prepare and educate society about cannabis use. Indeed, this could have been done without waiting for the health minister. After the genie was released from the bottle, all the ministry can do is to issue meaningless controls such as regulations on preventing smoke and smell disturbance from cannabis and suggestions to put only a certain number of cannabis leaves into food, or list cannabis as a protected herb.

When the ministry doesn't work enough to protect people's health, it instead becomes a burden on society. In daily life, people are at risk of unknowingly consuming food or beverages mixed with cannabis, or getting stoned simply because vendors use too much marijuana as an ingredient.

Not everyone in this country wants to consume cannabis and there are some people who are worried about the side effects of second-hand weed smoking, or the psychological and health effects of the recreational use of cannabis.

As it is now, society is confused about cannabis' benefits. For example, the Royal Thai Police ordered police not to use cannabis on duty while the Medical Council of Thailand issued a warning that ordinary people should not use cannabis due to its addictive substances that can harm people's health.

The government should take immediate action to prevent any improper use of cannabis. Clock-watching and waiting for lawmakers to pass a draft law on cannabis control come too late.

The government needs to do something to control cannabis use and it needs to do so now. And congratulations on the BJP for achieving its political campaign on cannabis legalisation. The party score big politically but society is now having to deal with this haphazard cannabis policy.

Apinya Wipatayotin

Reporter

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