Health ministry wants ban on recreational cannabis by year-end
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Health ministry wants ban on recreational cannabis by year-end

Proposal poses threat to cannabis-related businesses nationwide

The government wants to ban recreational use of cannabis by the end of this year, Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew said on Wednesday, threatening to put thousands of marijuana shops and farms that have sprung up around the country since a decriminalisation drive two years ago out of business.

Thailand will seek to get a new cannabis bill — which will explicitly outlaw recreational use of cannabis — approved by lawmakers in the lower house by the end of October, before parliament goes into recess, Dr Cholnan told Bloomberg in an interview in Bangkok. That will follow a review by the cabinet next month, he said. 

Liberal use of cannabis became a hot-button political issue heading into last year's national elections, which took place a year after Thailand became the first nation in Asia to decriminalise cannabis. But a parallel effort to establish regulations around the marijuana industry failed, leaving a vacuum that many politicians said was fuelling drug addiction. 

"It's an issue of great concern to us, because the legal gap has led to free use of cannabis and there aren't enough regulations to prevent misuse," Dr Cholnan said, defining "misuse" as anything not related to medical and health needs. "This bill will control cannabis, especially its buds, just as strictly as we would a drug."

That move would pose an existential threat for growers, dispensaries and a vast number of firms that have cropped up across Thailand to meet a burgeoning demand for marijuana. From backpacker hangouts in Bangkok to popular resort islands like Phuket, operators of cannabis dispensaries say they are helping to fuel a recovery in the country's tourism sector, a key driver of economic growth. 

Thailand had 5.2 million tourist arrivals this year through Feb 18, including almost 1 million from China, generating a net 254.7 billion baht (US$7.1 billion). 

In addition to marijuana for smoking, extracts have become big business. Companies now sell everything from cannabis buds to oil extracts, weed-infused candy and baked goods that, under current law, must contain no more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive compound known as THC that provides a "high" sensation. That limit does not apply to cannabis sold for smoking.  

While lighting up in public is currently banned, under the proposed bill, people who smoke or use cannabis in any location for recreation — including inside their homes — would face a fine of as much as 60,000 baht. Those selling cannabis or its extracts for recreational purposes would face up to one year in jail or 100,000 baht in fines, or both.

Thousands of cannabis dispensaries will not necessarily need to close down immediately after the bill passes, but they will need to quickly fall in line with the new rules or risk hefty penalties, Dr Cholnan said. Dispensaries will be allowed to keep operating until their existing licenses expire, but they won’t be provided any grace period under the new bill. 

The draft legislation calls for tighter licensing rules on cannabis planting, sales, exports and imports, with current growers, suppliers or related businesses required to have or obtain new licenses or permits. 

'Like a bang'

"It will kick in like a bang," said Dr Cholnan. "You can't brazenly use it recreationally anymore. You can't put the buds in jars and sell them for recreation, to be used for fun at parties, anymore. That will be illegal, and we'll arrest you." 

Such an outright ban will risk pushing the nascent industry underground again and will bring devastating economic impacts, said Rattapon Sanrak, founder of the cannabis advocacy group Highland Network. An estimated investment of at least 7 billion baht by about 7,000 dispensaries all over Thailand and at least 14,000 jobs they created are at stake, according to Mr Rattapon.

Under the current system, the cannabis industry was expected to be worth $1.2 billion by 2025, according to a 2022 report by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC). 

"The cannabis industry has fully come above ground and is thriving," Mr Rattapon said. "The ban will have far-reaching impacts, especially for small businesses and farms. It will force us to close down and eventually die out."

Mr Rattapon also said the proposed penalties against users and sellers of recreational cannabis were disproportionately harsh compared to more serious narcotics.

Under Thai law, methamphetamine users are penalised by one year in jail or 20,000 baht in fines, or both. The penalties may be forgiven altogether if they agree to enter government rehabilitation programs.

No middle ground

But Dr Cholnan played down those concerns, saying cannabis’ standing as an economic crop won’t be affected. Growers and producers will just have to abide by stricter rules that demand higher standards for medical uses, which will in turn add value to their products, he said. There are about 15,000 cannabis-related businesses officially registered with the government, including dispensaries and medical clinics, according to Dr Cholnan. 

"It's true that we’re trying to drive the economy. But we don't support any economic activity that could be dangerous for public health," he said. 

There is no better option, Dr Cholnan said, adding that the government could have taken a harsher approach. 

"We can do it this way, or we can make cannabis a narcotic again, and everyone will be prosecuted," he said. "This bill is already a compromise."

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