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BANGKOK, April 6 (Reuters) - Thailand's decriminalisation of cannabis has delighted its fans, alarmed some health experts and has increasingly disappointed farmers who have been undercut by illegal imports, sending a promise of a new bonanza crop up in smoke.
Marijuana has also become an election football with the opposition criticising the ruling pro-military coalition in the run-up to May 14 polls for rushing through decriminalisation last year to what they say is the detriment of society, youngsters in particular.
Thousands of cannabis shops and businesses have sprung up, especially in Bangkok and tourist spots, since Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to decriminalise the drug.
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But the legal framework has never been clearly set out and long-promised legislation failed in February to get through parliament, leaving the country without an umbrella law to regulate its use.
Apart from the legislative limbo, the benefits of a new cash crop for farmers, trumpeted by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul who spearheaded the decriminalisation effort, have failed to materialise, six industry members, including farmers and retailers, told Reuters.
That could compound grumbling about the government as its main challenger, the Pheu Thai Party loyal to deposed prime minister and former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, proclaims its opposition to marijuana.
Kajkanit Sakdisubha, CEO and founder of Taratera, which operates cannabis farms and shops, places the blame for the disappointment many farmers feel on illegal imports that began when the initial boom led to domestic supplies running out.
"Then the imported flowers started coming in," Kajkanit said, referring to the potent buds favoured by smokers.
A deluge of marijuana smuggled in from abroad has swamped Thailand, driving down wholesale prices and hurting growers, the industry members said.
Health Minister Anutin, whose party's 2019 campaign website featured marijuana plants sprouting gold coins, told Reuters that importing any part of the plant without permission was prohibited and should be stopped.
"It's illegal," he said, "If they are importing illegally, we will have to use law enforcement."
He did not comment on the scale of smuggled cannabis in the market or its impact on farmers.
The Thai Chamber of Commerce has estimated the sector, which includes medicinal products, could be worth $1.2 billion by 2025 but grower Srapathum Natthapong, 37, who invested a chunk of his life savings to jump into the industry, said he had seen his returns dwindle.
"In the early days, I could sell a kilo for between 350,000 and 400,000 baht ($10,200-$11,600)," said Srapathum, who runs three indoor farms.
In April, when is next harvest is due, Srapathum expects the price will have slumped to 200,000 baht ($5,800) per kilogram.
"The smuggled stuff is damaging us," he said.
As with the law governing the industry, data is hard to pin down but 1.1 million people in Thailand have registered with the government to grow cannabis. It is not clear if all are doing so or how many people are growing it without registering.
[1/5] A woman works inside a cannabis shop, at Khaosan Road, one of the favourite tourist spots in Bangkok, Thailand, March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa
'MADE IN U.S.A'
In Bangkok's Khaosan Road tourist haunt, stalls selling cannabis line the street, and no one seems to care that imported marijuana is officially illegal. Some shops highlight their foreign supplies.
"CANNABIS MADE IN U.S.A,"
one shop proclaimed in a sign.
At least half the cannabis being sold in Thailand is being smuggled in, three industry members said, though they had no estimates for the quantity or value of the imports.
Pro-cannabis activist and retailer Chokwan "Kitty" Chopaka said the U.S. was the main source of the marijuana that has flooded Thailand, especially in its tourist centres.
"A lot of cannabis that's coming in from the U.S. is going to dispensaries in Bangkok or Phuket or Pattaya," she said.
Pornchai Padmindra of the Thai Industrial Hemp Trade Association, which has about 300 members, said faced with shrinking profit margins many growers were considering quitting the industry.
"People are struggling," he said. "Things are becoming difficult."
Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former massage-parlour tycoon and activist gadfly of Thai politics, has Anutin and his Bhumjaithai party in his sights as the election campaign heats up.
Chuwit, though not standing in this election, recently took the opportunity of a visit to a Bangkok market with reporters to throw down his gauntlet.
"Is it a cash crop for farmers? No," said Chuwit, flanked by supporters with placards condemning marijuana.
"Anutin must take responsibility as public health minister."
Thailand has had a reputation for being tough on drugs and opposition figurehead Thaksin oversaw a bloody crackdown when he was prime minister in the early 2000s.
His daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, hoping to lead the party to victory in May, has condemned marijuana as a threat to society, especially the young. Her party has vowed to restrict it apart from for medical purposes.
Anutin brushed off the hostility to the cause he championed and pinned his hopes on legislation, which he blamed rivals for derailing in parliament.
"If it passed, we would get more popular and gain more votes," Anutin said.
"It's 100% a political game."