Status: 27.09.2023, 03:20 a.m.
By: Sven Hauberg
On Bangkok's famous Khao San Road, a woman demonstrated for the legalization of cannabis last year. A little later, a corresponding law is enacted. © Peerapon Boonyakiat/Imago
Since last year, almost everyone in Thailand has been able to reach for a joint with impunity. But soon it could have smoked out.
When a group of Chinese tourists landed at Bangkok airport on Monday, the government gave the guests a very special welcome: Thailand's new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin himself welcomed the group from Shanghai, shook hands and posed for selfies. Before the pandemic, tourists from China were the main source of income for Thailand's tourism industry, and to ensure that this is the case again in the future, Chinese people no longer need a visa for the Southeast Asian holiday paradise. "We are confident that this policy will boost the economy," Srettha said.
Just a few days earlier, he had announced his intention to bury another project, which is estimated to bring around one billion euros a year into the country's economy: Srettha's government wants to put an end to the barely regulated use of cannabis. The current legal situation must be "corrected" and the relevant paragraphs rewritten, Sretta said in a recent interview with Bloomberg.
Thailand plans new cannabis law
It would be another U-turn, just over a year after Thailand became the first country in Asia to largely allow its population (and many millions of tourists) to reach for joints and hash cookies. Until the middle of last year, stoners and dealers in Thailand were subject to draconian punishments as they were in many other parts of Asia, where people are sometimes executed if they are caught with the smallest amounts of weed. Last year, the 180-degree turnaround: Suddenly, the government in Bangkok legalized the possession, cultivation, distribution, consumption and sale of cannabis. Since then, there have only been restrictions on customers (pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as people under 20 years of age are prohibited from consumption), and the THC content must also be below 0.2 percent.
In Bangkok and many other places in Thailand, stoner shops have sprung up like mushrooms ever since. There are currently almost 6000 dispensaries across the country, around a quarter of them in the capital, and many more in tourist regions such as Pattaya and Phuket. They are all now facing uncertain times. In the process, the change had become apparent.
Srettha's Pheu Thai party ran in May with a tough anti-drug stance in the parliamentary elections, but only came in second. The clear winner of the election was the progressive Move Forward Party, which, however, failed to forge an alliance against the powerful military and royalists in the months following the election. She, too, wanted to tighten drug laws. For just over a month now, real estate mogul Srettha has been in power, along with ten other parties, including the one that once led the fight for cannabis legalization. She, too, is now advocating stricter regulation.
Smoking weed soon only for "medical purposes"
Pheu Thai himself goes back to a party that was once founded by Thailand's controversial ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin had waged a merciless "war on drugs" in the early noughties, and many thousands of dealers were executed without trial. After a military coup and almost two decades in exile, Thaksin recently returned to Thailand. Although he was immediately taken into custody on old allegations of corruption and abuse of power, Thaksin continues to pull the strings behind the scenes. However, there will probably be no return to those dark years when the bodies of drug dealers piled up on the streets of Bangkok.
After cannabis was removed from a list of narcotics last year, the government failed to enact legislation to regulate the market. Only the restrictions mentioned were added, knitted with a hot needle. Now Srettha wants to release the consumption only for "medical purposes", as he explained in the Bloomberg interview. He rejected its use as a leisure activity. "Drug abuse is a big problem for the country that is not being adequately addressed," Srettha said in an interview with Thai news site The Standard.
An end to the liberal cannabis policy would not only be a bitter disappointment for Thailand's stoners and coffee shop operators. Many farmers would also have to reorient themselves: they had started growing cannabis plants in some fields last year. Allegedly, 60 times as much can be earned with grass per hectare as with rice, Thai media reported. The gold rush could soon be history.