Thailand, a beautiful country in SouthEast Asia, was once a country where smoking a joint could have you imprisoned. In fact, they infamously had some of the harshest drug laws in the world. But then, in 2020, the nation decided to decriminalise cannabis in a bid to benefit from ‘weed tourism’.
However, with thousands of dispensaries opening up, and every legal grey area exploited, it has now been decided that this was a bad decision. Thailand’s new prime minister – Srettha – has vowed to restrict the use of cannabis once again. Let’s delve into this new legislation.
Thailand Pre Decriminalisation
To understand why the Thailand government has now decided to backtrack on a major drug law, it’s probably easiest to first understand what the nation was like before this law. Before Thailand decided to legalise medical cannabis in 2018, and then decriminalise recreational use in 2022, it was an incredibly harsh nation when it comes to dealing with drug users. In many ways, this culture is still there, except cannabis may have been given a break for a moment. Ratchada Law Firm highlights the consequences for those found in possession of Category 1 substances:
“Up to life imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 – 5,000,000 Baht, or the death penalty, (depending upon the amount of the substance or substances found) for disposal or possession for the purpose of disposal… Up to 10 years imprisonment or a fine of 20,000 – 200,000 Baht for possession.”
To put this into perspective, 5,000,000 baht is around 140,000 dollars. Category 1 substances include: heroin, MDMA, ecstacy and LSD. Cannabis, before the new law in 2022, was in the category 5 narcotics list – which included a fine of up to 1,500,000 baht and 2-15 years in prison. As you can see, Thailand has a history of holding extremely harsh laws when it comes to drug possession and use. In fact, in 2011, a Swedish man was given the death penalty for producing and possessing methamphetamine. This sentence was soon changed to life-imprisonment due to international backlash.
Thailand Post Decriminalisation
Then, in 2022, Thailand shook the world by decriminalising cannabis. After such a long period of being known as one of the harshest drug states in the world, they decided to alter that reputation. Cannabis was removed from the category 5 narcotics list, which essentially decriminalised the substance. Thai people – over the age of 20 – now have the ability to sell, grow and possess cannabis. However, within these changes of laws, there are a lot of grey areas. It’s these ambiguities that have allowed for around 6000 cannabis dispensaries to open up around Thailand, selling recreational weed. The Guardian writes:
“Confusing government amendments to the laws and continued debate about what should be permitted has created what has become known as “a weed Wild West” that could land tourists in trouble. “Since legalisation, no one really [knows] whether we have the correct information”, says Kitty Chopaka, an independent cannabis advocate based in Bangkok.”
Whilst possessing cannabis with over 0.2% THC was still technically illegal, it was not stopping the selling and possessing of it. Thailand was becoming one of the ideal spots for cannabis tourism. That is why, most recently, a decision was made to backtrack on this decriminalisation.
As of September 2023, the new Thai prime minister – Srettha Thavisin – has made a promise to “rectify” what he sees as a damaging drug law. After so many thousands of dispensaries have opened up selling high-THC products, he believes it is time to fix the issue. Time reports the prime minister saying:
“The law will need to be rewritten… It needs to be rectified. We can have that regulated for medical use only,” he said, adding that there can’t be a middle ground for recreational use.
During his campaign to be prime minister, Srettha promised a very anti-drug reign, including the undoing of the landmark policy made in 2022. He won the election, and his 11-party coalition, all agree with his decision to reintroduce a cannabis bill that will monitor the cannabis industry with tight regulations once again. However, he does not intend to add cannabis back to the category list. The president of the Phuket Cannabis Association speaks positively on this new prime minister and his views, saying:
“More regulation will be good as we don’t want a free-for-all anyway…Cannabis is here to stay, but in what status is not yet clear.”
Of course there are issues, despite the majority of Thai voters wanting this u-turn to happen. The major problem is that whenever drug use is illegalised, it doesn’t go away, it simply is pushed to the shadows of society. Meaning that rather than cannabis use being within dispensaries – for everyone to see – it will simply move its way back to the black market. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, the Southeast Asian organised crime economy was worth around 130 billion dollars in 2019. Srettha’s decision to undo the decriminalisation of cannabis will only add to this industry.
So is this another story to add to the war-on-drugs narrative? Or will this benefit Thailand and those who use drugs? Only time will tell.