Thailand's cannabis U-turn is a cautionary tale
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Thailand's cannabis U-turn is a cautionary tale

Shopkeepers waiting for customers at a cannabis shop in Phuket on Sept 2 last year. REUTERS
Shopkeepers waiting for customers at a cannabis shop in Phuket on Sept 2 last year. REUTERS

Turns out you can have too much of a good thing. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin ordered a U-turn on the country's landmark cannabis policy, saying the plant should be soon classified as a narcotic again and its use limited to medical and health purposes.

This decision comes two years after the former premier Prayut Chan-o-cha's administration decriminalised the drug in the aftermath of the pandemic. His aim? To bring tourists back to Thailand, tap into the multibillion-dollar medical marijuana business, and help struggling farmers grow a cash crop.

The prime minister's announcement shouldn't come as a surprise -- the new government has been weighing its options for a while. The weed experiment hasn't gone as planned. Rowing it back won't be easy, but the kingdom should persevere and attempt to regulate this sector -- even if the consequences are painful. Ignoring it will affect the nation's youth and social harmony -- ultimately the industry is only benefiting businesses, not poor farmers.

Walking through Bangkok's narrow alleyways recently, it was impossible to miss the numerous cafes that spilled on to the streets, or the distinct scent of marijuana wafting through the balmy air. These dispensaries sprang up seemingly overnight, after the decision to legalise cannabis was made in 2022. Even then it was controversial -- and ever since, competing forces have been trying to reverse the decision.

Of course, there can be benefits in decriminalising marijuana -- one is less pressure on courts and prisons. There are major overcrowding issues in Thai jails, where 75% of inmates are there on drug-related charges. Research has also shown that taking cannabis off the underground illegal market helps to drive it out of the illicit drug trade.

Many parts of the US have already been through this evolution. Cities like New York have now adopted a far more liberal approach to decriminalisation, but are also struggling with the consequences. It is unlikely that Thailand could learn from its experience. Culturally it is a far more conservative society, and sits in a region with harsh drug laws around possession and consumption.

Thailand used to have those laws too, but now it is the anomaly in Southeast Asia. Singapore for instance, imposes the death penalty for trafficking. It considers cannabis a highly addictive narcotic, has banned its consumption and runs regular campaigns that seek to show how much damage it has caused in other countries. At least two people were executed following marijuana charges last year.

In Indonesia, the death penalty is also used as a deterrent, although until recently it was rarely enforced. I reported extensively on the harsh drug laws and outgoing president Joko Widodo administration's decision to prioritise cracking down on drugs. It's a policy that is likely to be continued under the next leader, Prabowo Subianto.

In contrast, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2019. Almost 8,000 dispensaries and a large number of consumer-agro firms have cropped up across the country, selling everything from cannabis buds and oil extracts to weed-infused candy and baked goods.

Foreigners have also entered the unregulated market, opening shops and selling the drug. Under current decriminalisation laws, cannabis products must not contain more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol -- the psychoactive compound that provides a high sensation -- to be considered lawful.

Part of the push to legalise the plant was motivated by economics: The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said in a 2022 report that the domestic cannabis industry could be worth $1.2 billion (43.6 billion baht) by 2025.

But the U-turn is also being prompted by some very real concerns, particularly over the social and health impact on young people. Recent research has shows that a quarter of 18-to-65-year-olds had used cannabis since decriminalisation -- up from 2.2% in 2019. Young people are also smoking more weed: 10 times as much -- 9.7% in 2023 from 0.9% in 2019.

Anecdotally, doctors have reported more patients seeking treatment after they've fallen ill or tried to wean themselves off cannabis.

If the government does push through with its plans and classifies cannabis as a category-five drug, its possession could result in a jail sentence of up to 15 years and a maximum fine of 1.5 million baht.

Banning the drug outright will no doubt cause a lot of pain to farmers, small business owners, tourists and consumers. A middle-ground approach to return to medical usage would be wise.

Taxing marijuana would also help to boost government coffers, and weeding out foreigners from the trade would help to regulate the sector and allow locals to benefit more -- which was the original intent.

Thailand has enjoyed the high from the lucrative industry long enough. It is now time for a managed and rational come down. ©2024 Bloomberg LP

Karishma Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics with a special focus on China. Previously, she was the BBC's lead Asia presenter and worked for the BBC across Asia and South Asia for two decades.

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