A new cannabis and hemp control bill sponsored by the Public Health Ministry is expected to become law next year to regulate misuse of the plant.
Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew said the bill will not reclassify cannabis as a narcotic, and its primary aim is to close loopholes that allow people to use cannabis for the wrong purposes.
Under the bill, cannabis is still defined as a controlled plant and any extract of the plant that contains more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) remains listed as a narcotic.
The bill will also regulate the use of other parts of the plant that are not listed as narcotics but still contain some psychoactive substances, Dr Cholnan said.
He said the ministry still supports medicinal use but not use for recreational purposes, so those who grow cannabis -- even for personal use -- must have permission.
The version of the cannabis and hemp control bill proposed by the Bhumjaithai Party in the previous government allowed a household to grow up to 15 plants for personal use.
They merely needed to inform local authorities, but under the new law, they would also have to seek permission first.
Dr Cholnan said cannabis shops that already have a licence can continue their business, but they need to comply with the law, for example, by prohibiting the smoking of cannabis on their premises and not selling dried cannabis buds.
The law will also clarify which venues cannot sell or allow cannabis on their premises.
"We will not shut down all cannabis shops, but they need to comply with the law. The new regulations will not allow them to sell cannabis buds for people to smoke or even have for sale equipment for customers to smoke at their shops.
"In the past, we did not control usage, but with the new law, using cannabis for recreational purposes will be prohibited," he said.
The Department of Thai Traditional And Alternative Medicine has finished an initial draft of the bill which will be revised by the Public Health Ministry's legal team before being presented at a public hearing this month.
Cholnan: No redesignation for cannabis
Clear criteria for use
Dr Cholnan said the bill will set clear criteria for the use of cannabis for medical treatment, and venues for using it.
Most importantly, it will no longer allow people to grow the plant freely as medical-grade cannabis should be planted using scientific methods, he said.
The draft also says clearly that people who wish to plant cannabis should get a permit from the authority first, with further requirements to be issued later under the ministerial regulation, he said.
"Although cannabis can be used for medical treatment, other parts still contain narcotic substances and many have abused them. That is why we need to have clear measures to ensure cannabis is used for medical purposes only. It is government policy to support cannabis use for medical use, not recreation," he said.
Supachai: Parties can table own versions
Supachai Jaisamut, an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, said the version proposed by Bhumjaithai in the previous government allowed people to register to grow the plant, but under this bill people must seek permission. The measure is sponsored by the Public Health Ministry.
However, he said that several parts of the bill proposed by the ministry are no different from the bill pushed by Bhumjaithai.
He said other MPs or parties would also be able to table their own versions to parliament.
However, the draft proposed by the Public Health Ministry will be the main one for consideration by parliament while others may be amended and combined with the main bill by the House vetting committee, Mr Supachai said.
Fresh cannabis which will later develop buds containing two major compounds of THC and CBD.
Bill's passage next year
He said he expected the bill to be passed by parliament and enacted into law by the middle of next year.
''Currently, Thailand exports cannabis extracts which are used for the production of medicine and cosmetics worth about 100 billion baht each year.
''However, cannabis and cannabis-based products are also smuggled into the country illegally, which dealt a blow to local producers. Without proper laws and regulations in place, Thailand will lose trade opportunities.
''Recently, Japan has also floated the idea of decriminalising cannabis. Japanese lawmakers invited me to discuss the matter as Japan has imported cannabis extracts from Thailand,'' Mr Supachai said.
He added that under the regulations issued by the ministry in the previous government, shops must seek permission to sell cannabis and cannabis-based products from the Department of Thai Traditional And Alternative Medicine.
''But there are still some shops that operate illegally, and it is a matter of law enforcement,'' Mr Supachai said.
Cannabis liberalisation was one of the key election pledges made by Bhumjaithai ahead of the 2019 election.
The plant was later delisted from Category 5 of the narcotics law, except extracts containing more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol, the compound that creates the psychoactive effect, in an announcement in the Royal Gazette on June 9, last year.
It allowed people to legally cultivate and use cannabis as a household herb for medicinal purposes.
The aim was to promote its medical benefits and support a cannabis economy by pushing cannabis and hemp as cash crops and allowing its use in food, fashion and cosmetics.
At present, regulations include no smoking in public and no sales to people under 18 years old and pregnant women. Cannabis shops also must apply for a licence while those who grow cannabis for industrial use must also have licences.
However, decriminalisation preceded the legislation needed to control and regulate its use, which led to a free-for-all in the industry as businesses, many owned by foreigners, invested in cannabis outlets while users bought weed with little to no medical or consumer guidance.
Parliament has yet to pass the cannabis bill, which has led to questions over how far cannabis liberalisation has actually come.
The cannabis and hemp control bill pushed by Bhumjaithai was shot down in its second reading in parliament early this year.
This bill contains a raft of safeguard measures, such as a zoning law as well as much stronger legal penalties.
At the time, the Pheu Thai and the Democrat parties opposed the bill, arguing cannabis should be put back on the narcotics list as controls and regulations proposed under the bill are too lax.
Parnthep: Limitations to pose major obstacle
Concerns about limited use
Parnthep Pourpongpan, dean of the College of Oriental Medicine at Rangsit University, voiced concern the bill may limit use of the plant among ordinary people and patients.
He said few modern medicine practitioners are prescribing cannabis for treatment partly because of a lack of sufficient knowledge about its benefits.
"We are pleased that cannabis will not be put back on the narcotics list. But we are concerned that limitations on medical use will pose a major obstacle to people accessing alternative medical treatment,'' he said.
Daycha Siripatra, a medicinal cannabis advocate, insists cannabis is not a narcotic, saying many patients have benefited from traditional medicine treatment using cannabis.
''Liquors and cigarettes are dangerous to health but can still be sold in convenience stores, while cannabis is labelled as evil despite its medicinal benefits to health.
''Laws and regulations can be enforced to address any concern about misuse of the plant,'' he said, while stressing the need to educate people about the correct use of the plant for maximum health benefits.
Prasitchai Nunual, leader of Thailand's Cannabis Future Network, also warned that any attempts by politicians to put cannabis back on the narcotic list would trigger resistance from the civil sector.
In a recent meeting with Dr Cholnan, Mr Prasitchai said the network has been given hope that cannabis will not be redesignated as a narcotic. ''We will wait and see,'' he said.
However, he expressed concern the bill proposed by the Public Health Ministry may impose strict requirements that would discourage people from growing cannabis for household use, such as requirements that growing cannabis be done in a greenhouse with a safety control system or in partnership with academic institutions.
He also said he had reservations about any policy that might limit the development of the traditional Thai medicine industry.