Weed conundrum polarises society ahead of election
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Weed conundrum polarises society ahead of election

Recreational use of the drug is causing concern

A man browses various dried cannabis buds offered in a shop along Khao San Road, Bangkok. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
A man browses various dried cannabis buds offered in a shop along Khao San Road, Bangkok. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

Despite the different stances political parties take when it comes to the subject of cannabis -- with most objecting to its recreational use -- and another potential shift in the plant's legal status, many sellers remain unconcerned.

As the May 14 general election draws near, parties have begun publishing their policies in a bid to woo voters. The legal status of cannabis, frequently described as being in an unregulated "vacuum", is a subject of significant public concern, however, and political parties seem keen to capitalise on this.

This "vacuum" is due to the inability of the legislature to pass a marijuana code bill.

Efforts to regulate cannabis gained momentum in April 2022 due to the Bhumjaithai Party's policy, with its flagship cannabis policy credited with contributing to the party's success in the 2019 election.

The policy was promoted as a key driver to stimulate the Thai economy, as well as allowing for the plant's medical use to boost local healthcare and bolster the nation's goal of becoming a health and wellness and medical tourism hub.

However, it is the drug's recreational use that is causing concern.

Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, who also serves as the Public Health Minister, said recently the party would continue to push its original policy of using cannabis for medical purposes as well as an economic stimulus.

Cannabis buds have two main active compounds: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes a 'high', and cannabidiol (CBD), which can help relieve pain and anxiety. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

He said its unregulated status is due to parliament's lack of cooperation, which has made it hard to pass the related bill. Moreover, "some parties falsely accuse Bhumjaithai of supporting the recreational use of cannabis", he added.

"Bhumjaithai focuses on cannabis for medical and commercial use. This is our mission and we never deviate from it," said Mr Anutin, adding the party believes the regulation bill will pass if the party forms a government coalition after the election.

Chanin Rungsang, executive director of the Democrat Party, stated in mid-February that fully opening the market to cannabis poses a number of risks, especially if children are able to access it. He said his party only supports its use for medicinal purposes.

"The party will put a stop to this by tightening regulations to ensure that cannabis trading is done in accordance with medical orders or under the most stringent controls," he said.

Similarly, Phromin Lertsuridej, chairman of the Pheu Thai Party's Policy and Economic Committee, said on Monday that "cannabis is a drug with a neural effect" that must be regulated and only used for medicinal purposes.

Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP), said in a House of Representatives meeting last December concerning the cannabis bill that the plant should only be regulated for medicinal purposes and to support the tourism industry.

"The party's long-term proposal is that cannabis should also be treated as a (narcotic) drug in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Punishment of Drugs," he said.

People who want to use cannabis for its "benefits" will be legally authorised to do so when appropriate, he added.

With the national election scheduled to take place within the next two months, it remains to be seen what will happen to cannabis's legal status and the industry as a whole.

Good for business

Tud, the 35-year-old proprietor of Lazy Cannabis Cookies & Brownies, is among a group of vendors advocating for stricter regulations.

"I agree with more restrictions, but not if they make recreational use entirely illegal," he said, adding this is why most people want cannabis legalised in the first place.

"Without regulation, I have to worry every week about some irresponsible vendor selling cannabis to young children, causing a public backlash and pressure on legitimate businesspeople like myself," he said. "I want it to be regulated to end this problem."

This would benefit consumers and sellers alike, he said.

Thanakorn Prajan, a cannabis farmer and seller in his 30s, said he does not foresee a ban being imposed on the recreational use of marijuana. "The industry has gone too far to be turned back now," he said.

Cannabis sales are proving a cash cow and enticing more tourists to the country, making it a win-win, he noted, adding "at 500 baht or more per gramme, only wealthy Thais and foreigners can afford it".

Mr Thanakorn said many big investors, both Thai and foreign, are pouring money into this business and that "the lighting system can cost millions (of baht)", so he does not see an outright ban as either necessary or realistic.

"I doubt these groups of people will remain silent if its recreational use is prohibited," he said.

However, stricter rules for vendors, such as mandating they obtain authorised licences, will make it more difficult for small businesses, he said.

New regulations may not affect part-time sellers much, but they could axe their source of alternative income.

Sarit (surname withheld), a 22-year-old university student who sells cannabis as a side hustle, said the government has allowed the legal vacuum to exist for too long.

"If there is a change in the rules, some businesses will be able to adapt and others won't, which is only fair for a certain group of people," he said.

When asked what he would do in the face of a ban on recreational use, he said "I guess I would have to stop the business, but it's only my part-time job."

He said many amateur sellers just enjoy growing the plant to smoke or as a hobby, and sell the excess on the side.

"But for businesses with actual stores, (a ban) could prove to be very challenging," he added.

Health effect

The effect of cannabis on people's mental and physical health has become a bone of contention between supporters of free trade and proponents of more regulation.

Meanwhile, a clear consensus remains elusive -- even among those in the medical profession.

Dr Patpong Ketsomboon, who works at the Family Medicine Unit of the Faculty of Medicine at Khon Kaen University, published an opinion piece on Manager Online on March 5, stating that cannabis was made illegal for political reasons and the media's portrayal of it as a threat to children was false.

He also refers to the criminalisation of cannabis as "harmful to children" as, contrary to popular belief, it does not destroy the brain and, according to "many studies", it actually "protects the brain".

While many medical professionals may disagree, Smith Srisont, director at the Medical Council of Thailand and head of the forensic division at the Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital, Mahidol University, recently wrote in a Facebook post that "to the doctor who says cannabis protects your brain, please quit as a doctor and go open a cannabis store".

"A globally recognised and unbiased report published annually by UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] states clearly that marijuana harms children's brains; this is clear evidence," he said.

His subsequent post also cites a meta-analysis of the effect of cannabis that reportedly shows the drug can cause depression and psychiatric problems.

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