stub Thailand Could Reverse Cannabis Decriminalization - But Why?
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Thailand Looks to Reverse Decriminalization While the Rest of the World Legalizes

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Thailand Prime Minister wants to Reverse Cannabis Decriminaization

Thailand made history for Asia when it legalized medical cannabis use in 2018 and was applauded globally for its decision two years ago to decriminalize cannabis altogether. Two years later, its new Prime Minister is seeking to reverse this decision to decriminalize before the end of 2024, stepping backward to allowing strictly medicinal use.

However, with the industry booming, creating jobs and revenue with projections up to $1.2 billion by next year, is this something the country should realistically backpedal on?

When did Thailand First Legalize Cannabis?

By removing the plant from its Narcotics Act of 1979, it made it no longer a crime to grow or trade marijuana and hemp products, as well as use parts of the plant for medicinal purposes. It also allowed cafes and restaurants to serve cannabis-infused dishes and drinks with a limit of 0.2% THC.

At the time, Thai Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin had warned that the country “would promote cannabis policies for medical purposes” and that if tourists were coming “for medical treatment,” they’d be welcome, but those looking to come because they “heard that cannabis or marijuana was legal” were wrong.

“Don’t come. We won’t welcome you if you just come to this country for that purpose.” he had said back then, according to a CNN Travel article.

Why is Thailand Considering Reversing Cannabis Legalization?

Of course, we all know the reality of the situation – anywhere that cannabis becomes legal is going to see some spike in tourism and visitors that are exclusively there to experience the cannabis culture in another country.

It appears that its loose regulations—which allowed thousands of businesses to crop up rapidly over the past two years—have led to a less-than-regulated industry and uncertainty over whether decriminalizing was the right move.

Current Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin announced this past week that he wants to see cannabis re-listed in the Narcotics Act, placing it as a Category 5 drug, which would allow it for “medical and health purposes only” and put it next to drugs like opium and psilocybin.

The Prime Minister and other lawmakers with similarly conservative views cite things like an unregulated industry (which they have failed to regulate) and “increased drug use” as reasons they want to see it relisted as a narcotic. This shows their personal negative views of non-medicinal use seem to be highly influencing this decision.

What Impact Would Criminalizing Cannabis (Again) Have for Thailand?

The change to re-ban cannabis in Thailand would mean reinstating criminal penalties for manufacturing (growing, making edibles and extracts), importing, exporting, selling, and simple possession of cannabis. When so much progress has been made, shifting back to these archaic laws is unlikely to have the intended effect.

Impact of Criminalizing Cannabis on Consumers

Once reclassified as a Category 5 narcotic under Thailand’s Narcotics Act, it would once again be illegal for anyone to possess, let alone grow or consume, cannabis (unless for medicinal purposes). Possession alone would carry a criminal sentence of up to 15-years in jail and a maximum fine of up to 1.5M Baht (or roughly $40,600 U.S.).

That’s a mighty hefty fine for a simple joint or small bag of flower. While it wouldn’t be as extreme as some other Asian countries, it’s still a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime. Decriminalization wasn’t meant to be legalization – but that’s what it will lead to if you don’t take the chance to regulate the industry while you can (before shops open their doors!).

“Instead of regulating the industry properly, you’re choosing to close it up and make it worse by pushing it underground,” said Rattapon of Highland Cafe, a Bangkok-based dispensary.

Impact of Criminalizing Cannabis on Businesses

Right now there are somewhere around 8,000 dispensaries that have opened their doors since Thailand’s historic decriminalization in 2022. Because of the way decriminalization took place, it allowed them to operate in a gray-area as there was no clear ban on adult consumption.

“Many people have been growing cannabis and opening cannabis shops. These will have to close down,” Prasitchai Nunual, secretary-general of Thailand’s Cannabis Future Network, told Reuters.

What Thailand's government got in the end was everything they didn't want and more – but because it didn’t happen the way they expected and regulation isn’t going as smoothly as they had hoped, now the government is trying to take it back. Business owners say it’s too late though, with many prepared to protest and even file lawsuits to prevent these changes from happening.

“We’re all doing everything by the book but then suddenly the book is going to change,” Rattapon said. “We’re gearing up to protest and preparing to file lawsuits in the event it happens.”

Will Thailand Actually Reverse Cannabis Legalization?

If Thailand is going to re-criminalize cannabis, the industry isn’t going down without a fight. An advocacy group called Writing Thailand’s Cannabis Future is already preparing to protest in Bangkok this week on Thursday, May 16th. Should the Prime Minister remain intent on seeing cannabis reclassified as a narcotic before the end of the year, more protests and even class-action lawsuits are likely.

Only time will tell whether Thailand decides to take a step backward and force a currently legal market back underground or chooses to find a way to regulate the growing industry and benefit economically from the cannabis plant even more than it already has.

Julia Granowicz-Johnson is a founder, copywriter, and journalism blogger with a passion for the cannabis plant and its uses in personal wellness and medicine. She advocates for the reform of cannabis laws around the globe through her writing and aims to bring attention to the negative impacts that prohibition has left in its wake.