What to do about weed?
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What to do about weed?

About Politics: It appears members of the government are not quite on the same page when it comes to policy on cannabis /Speculation has it that Sutin Klunsang and Cholnan Srikaew face the cabinet axe, but one political expert thinks otherwise

Anutin: Caught off-guard
Anutin: Caught off-guard

The legalisation of cannabis was recently back in the spotlight, threatening to test the coalition government’s unity.

Despite Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s insistence that unity remains firmly intact and that a cabinet reshuffle had “never crossed his mind”, what he said to the French media recently had many wondering about how long the government might last.

Mr Srettha gave an interview to France 24, a French state-owned news outlet, in which he disclosed the government’s policy to rein in the use of cannabis, which was decriminalised in 2022. He reportedly spoke in favour of reclassifying cannabis as a narcotic, arguing the social ramifications of cannabis legalisation outweigh the economic gains from the plant being opened to medical use and for research purposes.

His interview took the Public Health Ministry aback with Minister Dr Cholnan Srikaew declaring that the cannabis legalisation issue was too far along to turn back the clock now.

Dr Cholnan remarked that although the buck stops with the premier, re-listing cannabis as a narcotic must be thought through carefully. He added the proposed recriminalisation was strictly Mr Srettha’s personal view since the cannabis legalisation policy was championed as one of the pledges the government delivered to parliament, on which it was obliged to act.

As of now, only products containing over 0.2% THC [tetrahydrocannabinol — cannabis’ main psychoactive agent] by weight will be considered illegal.

Pheu Thai, while it was the main opposition party during the previous Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, fought tooth and nail against removing cannabis from the narcotics list.

The decriminalisation of cannabis was initiated by the Office of the Narcotics Control Board and followed through by the Bhumjaithai Party, a coalition partner which oversaw the Public Health Ministry under the Prayut government.

Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul pushed hard to have the policy implemented. As the second-biggest party in the Prayut administration, Bhumjaithai wielded tremendous bargaining power to put into practice the unprecedented policy of using cannabis to serve medical and research purposes.

The party tailored a regulation to specifically accommodate the exploitation of cannabis for research and medicinal development, much to the delight of patients suffering ailments that require cannabis-based drugs to complement their treatment protocols.

However, a comprehensive law was lacking which would otherwise regulate cannabis use. For this reason, cannabis has been widely used for recreational purposes and is easily available online, which exposes people under 18 to the herb and encourages them to try or experiment with other narcotic substances, according to the Justice Ministry.

The cannabis control bill has been drafted and waits to be signed into law. Its enactment is a tied-over obligation from the previous government as the bill is pending deliberation in parliament.

Bhumjaithai had highlighted the cannabis decriminalisation policy as its election campaign platform despite opposition from many quarters including Pheu Thai which argued that cannabis should be put back on the narcotics list as controls and regulations proposed under the bill are too lax.

When Pheu Thai and the pro-conservative parties, the biggest of which is Bhumjaithai, decided to form a government together following last year’s election, some political watchers were foreseeing a rift between them over the cannabis fiasco.

However, making concessions on cannabis became a precursor in government formation and Pheu Thai, as leader of the bloc, was viewed as having backtracked for the sake of coalition unity.

The cannabis issue appeared to vanish soon after the government was sworn into office, but it resurfaced recently when speculation about a cabinet reshuffle began gaining traction.

It was even rumoured that Pheu Thai was pondering a move to welcome the Democrat Party into the coalition. The rumour mongers were of the opinion the inclusion of the Democrats would render the government line-up too “cumbersome” unless one of the existing coalition parties was ditched.

The latest cannabis speculation was the result of Mr Srettha’s France 24 interview which may have caught the Bhumjaithai Party off guard.

In response, Mr Anutin was quick to remind the premier that Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai had already put their differences aside over the cannabis issue. He said the prime minister even declared to parliament in a policy statement right after he had officially assumed office that cannabis would be allowed to be used for medical and research purposes.

“There’s an obvious degree of clarity there,” he told reporters.

A policy statement to parliament is basically a commitment unequivocally made to the people, he said, warning that reverting cannabis back to its narcotic status would be a hugely complicated matter.

Mr Anutin, however, declined to answer reporters’ questions on whether Pheu Thai should return the favour since Bhumjaithai has been consistently supportive of Pheu Thai’s flagship digital wallet handout scheme.

“I follow where the head of the government leads,” he said.

Will they stay or go?

Speculation is rife about how Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin will rejig his cabinet, with Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang having a big question mark hanging over his head.

Reports say that Mr Srettha, who concurrently serves as the finance minister, will give up that role and let his adviser, Pichai Chunhavajira, take over.

Sutin: Questions over future

The premier, however, is said to be setting his sights on a new dual role involving him becoming defence minister. So, it is widely anticipated that Mr Sutin will be dropped from the cabinet in the reshuffle expected to take place as early as next month.

The veteran Pheu Thai Party politician’s path into the Srettha cabinet has been marked with twists and turns. His place in the Pheu Thai-led government was anything but certain from the outset.

Rumours circulated prior to his appointment as defence minister. He was tipped for various ministerial roles, ranging from defence to education to cultural affairs and back to defence.

With no background in the military or in security affairs, his appointment as defence minister did not quell the feeling of uncertainty about his position in the government. Some pundits were quick to predict that Mr Sutin’s tenure in the cabinet would be short.

With talks about a cabinet reshuffle gaining momentum, it comes as no surprise to hear Mr Sutin’s name among those who face the axe.

But Thanaporn Sriyakul, director of the Political and Public Policy Analysis Institute, takes the speculation about Mr Sutin’s fate with a grain of salt. Although a cabinet reshuffle can be expected, Mr Sutin will not face the chop, according to the academic.

Mr Sutin is widely recognised by Pheu Thai supporters in the Northeast — the only region where the ruling party could defeat its arch-rival, the Move Forward Party (MFP), in last year’s general election.

It is not wise to hurt the party’s support base, especially when Mr Sutin has been loyal to the ruling party all these years. He has never lost an election, proved his worth as chief opposition whip during the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration and brought himself and his own authenticity to the defence minister’s role.

Mr Thanaporn also said the rumour about Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew being removed from the cabinet is also baseless. The former Pheu Thai leader is the best choice the ruling party has to keep up the morale of its supporters in the North, where Pheu Thai was defeated by the MFP in many constituencies in the 2023 polls.

It is speculated that Mr Sutin and Dr Cholnan will be removed from the cabinet and assigned to oversee the ruling party’s parliamentary affairs and strategies.

“There is no reason to justify ousting them from the post. Moreover, I’ve heard from a reliable source that the rumour has upset the prime minister and a certain de facto leader of Pheu Thai. Removing them from the line-up is something a bona fide leader will never do,” said the analyst.

He was apparently referring to paroled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has long been seen as the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, which is now led by his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

While opinions among political observers differ over who will be shown the door, there is no dispute among them that the ultimate decision regarding the cabinet shake-up could lie with Thaksin.

The analyst said Mr Srettha does not necessarily have to hold the position of defence minister to direct national security and foreign policy. As prime minister, he has the authority to oversee these policies without the need to take on additional roles or responsibilities.

According to Mr Thanaporn, there is also no basis to rumours that the public health portfolio will be handed to Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin because Mr Somsak is known to have no interest in the post.

Mr Somsak, public health minister in the previous government, is believed to be eyeing the Interior Ministry, but is also reportedly willing to settle for the Agriculture Ministry.

But Interior Minister and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul and Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow, who is secretary-general of Palang Pracharath, will never relinquish or swap their posts.

Moreover, Mr Somsak seems content with his current job after the cabinet gave the nod to the “100-billion-baht cattle” project to help eradicate poverty among Thai farmers, according to Mr Thanaporn.

The scheme, to be piloted among 500,000 households in target areas nationwide, will extend a loan of 50,000 baht to each household to buy two cows to raise on their land.

“Mr Somsak was quoted as saying he would quit politics if the project turned out to be a flop.

“Not to mention that Mr Somsak is in charge of the Office of National Water Resources which is allocated huge funds each year. He wants nothing more,” Mr Thanaporn said.

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