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The winners of the election may reverse the recent policy that made Thailand the first Asian country to decriminalize recreational cannabis.
Thai voters have delivered a surprising and stunning verdict in favor of an opposition party that advocates for significant institutional reforms in the country. However, the winning parties may reverse the current cannabis policy, which has resulted in an unregulated market and has faced criticism from many parts of society.
Thailand's reformist opposition and the youth-led Move Forward Party (MFP) emerged victorious in the country's general elections held on Sunday, May 14. They secured the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, with 152 out of 500 seats, showing a strong rejection of the military-aligned parties within the current government coalition.
The MFP now has to reach an agreement with the Pheu Thai Party, the country's main opposition party and a longstanding populist force for the past 20 years, which secured 141 seats in Sunday's election.
But the election results may not be good news for Thai cannabis enthusiasts and pro-legalization activists.
After becoming the first Southeast Asian country to legalize medical cannabis in 2018, Thailand decriminalized recreational cannabis last year by allowing to grow cannabis plants at home for personal use after notifying their local government and removing the cannabis plant from the Category 5 list of controlled drugs.
But since decriminalization took effect, the sale of cannabis products has spread across the country, becoming a dividing political issue as those opposed to the policy are worried about the negative impact of recreational cannabis use on Thai society.
Although cannabis was decriminalized for personal use and the cultivation was initially intended for industrial purposes, the sale of cannabis products for recreational use rapidly expanded throughout the country without lawmakers implementing the necessary measures to regulate the market.
As a result, the cannabis industry flourished independently, without proper oversight or control.
It's worth noting that the sale of recreational cannabis remains theoretically illegal, although enforcement is inconsistent. Cannabis shops and stalls can be found on nearly every street corner in major towns and cities across Thailand.
But both MFP and the Pheu Thai Party have criticized the side effects of the cannabis reform during their political campaigns, and now they may implement regulations to limit the sale of cannabis for recreational use.
While the position on cannabis of the MFP, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, is less clear, as reported by Australian Finance Review, the leader of the Pheu Thai party, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, has taken a firm stance on cannabis and said that she doesn't want his children to grow up in a country where drugs are easy to find, and cannabis is liberalized, as reported by Bloomberg. Furthermore, the Pheu Thai party aims to reclassify cannabis as a narcotic while preserving its medical use.
However, it's hard to say whether the effects of the current cannabis policy can be reversed in practice because the sale of cannabis for recreational use is creating a lucrative market.
A study conducted by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce forecasted the growth of the country's cannabis industry to be worth over $1 billion by 2025.
However, while the initial intention of decriminalization was meant to allow personal cannabis use and end prohibition policies, the unregulated market inadvertently provided an opportunity for the influx of illegally imported cannabis from abroad. This influx, as reported by Al Jazeera, began to dominate the market, overshadowing local farmers and retailers who were initially boosted by the policy change.
As a result, Thailand's cannabis industry is currently in a state of limbo.
On the one hand, there is a surge of tourists visiting Thailand to take advantage of the lenient stance on recreational cannabis use. But on the other hand, many political parties are advocating for curbing the sale of recreational cannabis, which is still unregulated.
However, the Bhumjaithai Party, led by health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, could potentially serve as a stronghold in protecting the cannabis industry.
Minister Anutin was the man behind the decriminalization of cannabis, which came into effect in 2022, which, along with the legalization of medical cannabis in 2018, represents one of his most significant achievements.
In the 2023 general election, the party secured 70 seats, further solidifying its influence and potential support for the industry.
But while Anutin defended the cannabis policy he campaigned for, he promised that, if re-elected, he would tighten regulations to curb recreational use and restrict cannabis use to medical purposes only, according to Reuters.
While it's still uncertain whether Anutin's Bhumjaithai Party will wield significant political influence to drive the government towards regulating, revising, or potentially reversing the current cannabis policy, it is crucial for the new government to acknowledge the rise of a new tourism segment fostered by the relaxation of cannabis prohibition in the country and that has to potential to draw many tourists from various parts of the world.