Cannabis bill riles coalition
Bhumjaithai at odds with govt partners
Relations among the government's coalition partners have become strained due to a cannabis and hemp bill, with the Bhumjaithai Party slamming its withdrawal from parliament as being politically motivated.
On Wednesday, the much-touted bill was suspended pending revision of its contents which lawmakers viewed as being overly "loose" and potentially exposing young people to danger.
The House of Representatives voted 198 to 136 with 12 abstentions to withdraw the bill for improvements despite objections from Bhumjaithai, which sponsored the legislation. The bill authorises the use of cannabis and hemp for medicinal and research purposes.
Critics were concerned its contents failed to guarantee full protection for young people and sanctioned the recreational use of the drug.
Public Health Minister and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul said on Thursday this was not unexpected. "The bill will give one party [Bhumjaithai] an advantage over several other parties so I could see this coming a mile away," he said.
He insisted the contents of the bill include feedback from the public and said it was scrutinised by a House committee made up of both the government and opposition blocs, as well as medical experts.
Asked if the withdrawal of the bill would strain relations among coalition parties, Mr Anutin said: "If that is to happen, so be it. But we are confident people will benefit from the bill.
"From now on, if any issues related to cannabis arise, go for parties that are trying to delay it -- Pheu Thai, the Democrats and Palang Pracharath," said Mr Anutin, who is also a deputy prime minister.
Asked whether the bill will likely be passed before the current parliament's tenure ends next March, he said: "Ask those who have delayed it … It is obvious how the political game is playing out."
Mr Anutin tried to quell fears of a lack of adequate control of cannabis use following the bill's suspension, saying the public health ministerial regulations are already in place to control its use.
He said if the bill cannot become law before the parliament's tenure ends, Bhumjaithai will continue to push for its passage in the next election.
Before the previous general election, Bhumjaithai promised to decriminalise cannabis for medicinal and economic reasons.
Mr Anutin also delivered a speech at an annual academic conference of the Public Health Ministry in Songkhla province on Thursday.
"An unseemly incident occurred in the House. The cannabis and hemp bill, which had already been improved by a House committee, was withdrawn and those who supported the removal claimed they wanted it to be more carefully considered," he said.
"I wonder why the revised bill was no better than the original. It is clear the issue has been politicised."
"With many people starting to benefit from the cannabis policy and the election approaching, it is understandable that opponent groups are acting with a political purpose," Mr Anutin said.
Responding to criticism from Bhumjaithai, Democrat Party MP for Trang Satit Wongnongtaey insisted the Democrat Party did not oppose the bill.
"The Democrats did not strike a deal with any parties before the vote ... Even though the bill was withdrawn, it can be resubmitted to parliament in November. The benefits to the public and young people must be taken into account," he said.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said cracks are appearing in the coalition as the stakes are high for Bhumjaithai and the Democrats in the next election, particularly in the South.
Bhumjaithai has thrown down the gauntlet to the Democrats as Mr Anutin said he has his sights set on winning a landslide in the South, the Democrat's traditional stronghold, Mr Wanwichit said.
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said if the bill is enacted, Bhumjaithai will challenge government and opposition parties in the next poll.