People hold signs and mock-up joints while celebrating World Cannabis Day in Bangkok. Peerapon Boonyakiat / SOPA Image via Reuters Connect
Thailand, famous for having some of the toughest anti-drug laws in the world, recently became the first Asian country to decriminalize cannabis. Still, a tangle of laws — and messy domestic politics — make it unclear whether recreational use and possession will be prosecuted now, or in the future. Huh? We asked Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford to make sense of it all.
How did we get here?
Thailand has traditionally taken a very conservative approach to drugs and punished those caught with even small amounts of certain narcotics with lengthy prison terms or even the death penalty. But the junta that took over after the 2014 military coup decided to change course. Its justice minister admitted that anti-drug policies had failed to eradicate consumption — yet succeeded in fostering police corruption and filling overcrowded jails with minor offenders, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In 2017, the generals began reducing penalties for possession, import/export, and production of narcotics; a year later, Thailand became the first country in Asia to legalize medical marijuana.
What happened next?
Ahead of the 2019 elections, the first since the coup, the Bhum Jai Thai (Thai Pride) party made legalizing cannabis its central policy proposal, vowing to allow households to grow weed as a cash crop and develop the medical marijuana sector. This niche but fairly popular policy agenda helped the BJT, a medium-sized party, stand out in a crowded electoral field. It ended up winning the fifth-largest number of seats in parliament and joining the coalition government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the same army chief who seized power in 2014.
Prayuth appointed BJT leader Anutin Charnvirakul, a staunch advocate of cannabis legalization, as deputy PM and health minister, enabling him to push harder for decriminalization. Subsequent defections by MPs from other parties resulted in BJT becoming the second-largest party in the ruling coalition, giving it even more clout. As Prayuth has struggled to manage an increasingly fractious coalition and stop attempts to oust him, he has become more dependent on the BJT to stay in power.
It is in this context that the general-turned-PM caved to the party’s signature demand, which the BJT chalks up as a major victory and hopes will bolster its prospects in the next elections, due by May 2023.
So, is weed now really legal?
Yes and no. Anyone is now free to grow, consume, and trade domestically sourced cannabis plants, with the previous licensing scheme for medical marijuana cultivation now scrapped. However, cannabis extracts are treated differently: those containing more than 0.2% of THC, basically what makes you high, are still classified as illegal narcotics. All extracts derived from foreign plants are also banned, regardless of THC content. The regulatory situation is hazy and rapidly evolving, though.
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Published: July 10, 2022
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