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14 June 2024
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Thailand’s weed legalisation dilemma

When cannabis or ganja was legalised (the plant was removed from the illicit drugs list) in 2022 by the Prayut Chan-o-cha government, this led to mass confusion whereby the public misunderstood and perceived it as “liberalisation”. This resulted in widespread and unregulated cannabis consumption.

Internationally, cannabis use is generally divided into two categories: either medical/non-medical or recreational/non-recreational. However, in Thailand, there are three categories for cannabis use: medical, recreational, and others. The last category is problematic due to its ambiguity, which cannot be classified as medical or recreational. Examples of “others” include treating the plant as a tea by putting the fresh leaves into hot water for a drink or using its dried flowers as an ingredient in cooking. Some cannabis lovers consider this a waste. Unfortunately, this type of use has increased substantially after legalisation.

While medical cannabis remains a debate regarding its benefits and side effects, such as tolerance, recreational cannabis, especially in young people, is a major concern in Thailand and other countries where cannabis has been legalised.

For example, in Canada, where recreational use was decriminalised in 2018, the government still has a tough restriction on underage use. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, which is a role model and praised for its generosity toward recreational cannabis, has attempted to reduce the number of cannabis coffee shops by 40%. Some Dutch cities do not allow non-citizens to have access to cannabis. The Dutch government has implemented a harm reduction strategy to lessen the negative impact, especially the risk that the country becomes a drug trafficking hub for cannabis and other illicit drugs with increasing gang-related crimes.

Conversely, Thailand does not have a clear policy or measure on recreational use. Although the pending bills on cannabis and hemp indicate that the government does not allow recreational use, its definition is still vague. This is cumbersome for law enforcement.

Initially, medical cannabis, which includes traditional and alternative medicinal use, and economic impacts were thought to be the benefits for Thailand.

However, medical cannabis is not considered the first choice for both modern and alternative practices/treatments. It is mainly used to relieve, not to cure, some diseases. The form that can be used to cure or treat is the highly concentrated one that is still in the clinical/laboratory stage.

Besides, patients’ reactions to cannabis extracts vary. In Thailand, medical use of cannabis is still limited to epilepsy and seizures in drug-resistance cases and to relieve the side effects of nausea and vomiting from cancer treatment.

Note also that the economic benefit of cannabis remains unclear.

Removing cannabis from the illicit drugs list led to an increase in consumption, especially of the lower cannabis grades that drag down the market prices. With the ambiguous regulations, a huge load of cannabis products and extracts became publicly available. In addition, the community enterprises that have followed the requirements and regulations under the old laws before legalisation have struggled to survive due to competition from more supply, some of which are low quality, while only a few entrepreneurs have broken even and continue their business.

Many cannabis supporters claim that the recovery in the tourism industry is a result of cannabis legalisation. However, this might be a false claim as foreign tourists re-entered the country only at the end of the Covid-19 crisis. There is no concrete evidence to believe that cannabis helps boost the tourism industry and, hence, the Thai economy.

Until now, there seem to be more negative impacts from cannabis legalisation in Thailand. However, putting it back on the illicit drugs list could also be troublesome. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s pledges to put the plant back on the list have sparked controversy and disputes among its supporters.

Even if the government successfully reinstates cannabis’ illicit drug status, should such ambiguous laws and regulations continue?

As mentioned earlier, cannabis decriminalisation results in higher consumption. There was a research report that found recreational cannabis use rose 10 times. In addition to younger-age use, the public availability of low-quality or sub-standard products from cannabis, such as snacks and drinks, is an inadvertent effect. Using cannabis with other substances is also a serious issue and is found in many studies.

What the government should do is reap the positive impact and suppress the negative impact of cannabis. However, this has to be done through stronger law enforcement.

The first step is making laws and regulations unambiguous. The new bill must have clear definitions of medical and recreational cannabis to prevent the abuse and misuse that allow some to make dodgy gains.

More importantly, after the bill is enacted for three years, the government should review and evaluate its implementation through politically neutral research funding agencies like the Thailand Science Research and Innovation or the National Research Council of Thailand. (Canada is a good role model on this.)

Finally, the government should follow up and re-evaluate the health, economic, and social impacts to minimise the harm from its cannabis policy and implementation.

Writer : Nuttanan Wichitaksorn , Ph.D. Visiting Research Advisor TDRI

First Publish : Bangkok Post   June 05, 2024