The shocking news on Friday about a cannabis shop standing side-by-side with a convent school on Silom Road in Bangkok is a reminder that the country needs good laws and stronger community-based surveillance to regulate ganja dispensaries as they mushroom across the country. If not, the cannabis they sell that also has proven health benefits and economic potential will be criminalised again.
Marijuana legalisation has become an issue again after Chuvit Kamolvisit - former massage parlour and ferocious anti-cannabis campaigner - revealed that a cannabis shop is situated opposite the entrance to St Joseph's Convent School on Soi Convent between Silom and Sathon roads.
The report caused a public uproar, especially among parents. The anxiousness is warranted. While the dispensary is reported to have obeyed the law and never sold cannabis to anyone under 18, it also doubles as a coffee shop. This has caused worries among parents that young students who might buy beverages and snacks from this shop might be exposed to or even lured into using cannabis.
The issue also confirms that the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine (DTAM) under the Ministry of Public Health has failed to convince the public that cannabis dispensaries can co-exist within the community in a responsible way.
In the case of the Soi Convent shop, DTAM's director general, Dr Thongchai Lertwilairattanapong has conceded that the department has no authority to prevent cannabis dispensaries from opening near schools and temples. He blamed the loophole on a lack of strong laws to regulate the industry.
The Cannabis and Hemp Control Bill was shot down in its second reading in parliament early this year. This bill contains a raft of safeguard measures such as zoning law as well as much stronger legal penalties.
Dr Thongchai is right about the lack of a better law. Yet the DTAM should not wait and pin all its hopes on the cannabis act being passed. The department and other officials should have been more proactive in building community-based monitoring systems in communities where cannabis shops are located near schools. These systems should include residents, schools, parents and even cannabis shops themselves to promote responsible use as well as educate people about the health benefits.
With the Move Forward Party (MFP) about to lead the next government, it is hoped that lawmakers and ministries will quickly solve the cannabis consumption problem by passing stronger legislation sooner.
It is noteworthy that the MFP's stance on cannabis is surprisingly inconsistent. The party supported medical cannabis and did not object to decriminalisation in June last year but recently made an abrupt U-turn after the Bhumjaithai Party voted down its flagship progressive liquor bill, according to Prasitchai Nunual, who represented the MFP in drafting this cannabis bill. Recently, the party also made a contradictory move by supporting court action to recriminalise cannabis.
Make no mistake. Cannabis consumption has problems, and there are abuses, but weed itself has medicinal value. What the cannabis policy needs is a strong legal foundation with sufficient safeguards so that the alternative health and lucrative wellness sector can reap the full benefits while vulnerable groups are protected. It is a policy that can only be achieved by taking an open-minded science-first approach to regulation. Political games and a nanny-state mindset help no one.