Southeast Asian country’s booming cannabis industry is under a cloud as politicians reconsider decriminalisation.
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Bangkok, Thailand – On Thailand’s Ganja TV, cannabis enthusiasts have followed the drug’s swift journey from banned narcotic, to legal plant for medicinal use, to recreational high.
Now, one year after Thailand decriminalised cannabis, the Facebook page’s 90,000-odd followers are looking on bemused as rival politicians threaten to make dispensaries and open consumption illegal once more – or at least tightly controlled.
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At the centre of attention is Pita Limjaroenrat, the prime minister-in-waiting whose Move Forward Party (MPF) scored an upset to come first place in last month’s general elections.
While MFP is widely viewed as the most liberal of Thailand’s political parties, cannabis advocates say it is leading the drive to rein in recreational use, casting a pall over the country’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.
“What made you change so much?” Ganja TV said in a recent post accompanying a video of the MFP leader hailing the potential of cannabis businesses to fund schools and provide “immense opportunities” for Thailand.
Pita now says the cannabis boom should be put on pause to curb widespread recreational use until the incoming government can pass a proposed Cannabis Act to draw clear lines on where the drug can be sold and consumed.
Pita Limjaroenrat, who is aiming to be Thailand’s next prime minister, has called for a pause on the recreational use of cannabis [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]
That chimes with the views of Pita’s alliance of eight parties, some of which hail from the conservative Muslim-majority southern provinces of Thailand, that are trying to form a government over the coming weeks.
To form a ruling coalition, with Pita as premier, they need to secure 376 seats to have a parliamentary majority. Currently, they have 313.
The alliance’s stance on cannabis has angered Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who pushed for liberalisation and refuses to back any government seeking to roll back the laws – even temporarily. Anutin’s Bhumjaithai Party holds 71 seats, giving it potential kingmaker status in deciding the composition of the next government.
As the politicians bicker, cannabis advocates are increasingly upset about the clouds gathering over their industry.
“I started this [Ganja TV] in 2019, hoping to be a media platform to educate people about the benefits of medical marijuana,” K Lert, the editor of Ganja TV, told Al Jazeera.
“Now everyone is worried about kids being exposed to cannabis, yet they haven’t passed the Cannabis Act to stop that happening. It makes no sense.”
For investors, the legal uncertainty has sapped confidence in an industry that flourished in the year following decriminalisation.
“I’ve invested about $1m already. If it becomes illegal again I would have to stop the investment and find a market elsewhere,” Aphichai Techanitisawad, 49, founder and CEO of cannabis seller Grasshopper, told Al Jazeera.
“Rolling back the law would send a ripple effect across not only the weed industry but many others, including real estate – there are more than a thousand dispensaries in Bangkok alone – so that’s a lot of income disappearing for landlords. Not to mention other supported equipment for growing etc.”
Cannabis has become strikingly visible in Thailand since the kingdom – which once had harsh penalties for possession – suddenly transitioned into one of the most liberal environments for its sale and use in the world.
Cannabis use has become much more visible in Thailand since its decriminalisation last year [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]
Taking advantage of the legal vacuum created by the failure to pass the Cannabis Act, Thais and tourists alike smoke openly on the streets and illegal imports – mainly from North America – have flooded the market, giving plenty of ammunition to critics of libertine cannabis culture.
“Legalisation has opened opportunities; it’s been great. But I’m very disappointed at the political game we’re stuck in without the Cannabis Act,” Faris Pitsuwan, who owns the Siam Land of Smile dispensaries in the popular island resorts, including Phi Phi and Koh Lanta, told Al Jazeera. “It has to come with regulation.”
For Kobboon Chatrakrisaeree, a small-time grower in a Bangkok suburb, the initial euphoria that followed decriminalisation has tapered off.
“When we don’t have a law to regulate it, it starts to be smeared and tainted by sloppy business owners who sell to kids and folks who just pull out a bong and smoke on the street as if they were in Canada,” Kobboon told Al Jazeera. “It’s all still new to Thai society.”
Looking back on Thailand’s year-long experiment in decriminalisation, Kobboon said he believes Pita wants to reset the cannabis scene for the safety and economic benefit of Thais.
“Ganja is a beautiful creation, not just for people to get rich,” he said.