Thailand Pot Politics Key Issue In Election

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Thailand cannabis dispensary Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand - Containers of marijuana flower buds displayed in the Sukhumweed cannabis shop. Photo: Shutterstock

Thailand – The political party known for getting cannabis partially legalized in the kingdom, the Bhumjaithai Party, has accused rivals of playing politics with its flagship policy ahead of a May 14 election, warning that marijuana reform is non-negotiable if it is to join any government coalition.

In June of 2022, Thailand decriminalized cannabis to be cultivated and sold by licensed businesses for medicinal use only.

But a detailed cannabis act failed to pass parliament before it was dissolved in March to make time for campaigning for the upcoming election.

In the legal vacuum, recreational smoking has bloomed, causing consternation among Thailand critics who say the law is too much, too fast.

Both the Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties, the main pro-democracy groups expected to win the majority of seats, say the liberalization of weed has been chaotic, has encouraged the smoking of marijuana and has failed to boost poor farmers as promised, because of high investment costs.

“We don’t want any more weed. We’re done with it,” Pheu Thai Secretary-General Prasert Chanruangthong told a campaign event last week.

“Pheu Thai is for medicinal marijuana, not recreational. Do you remember brothers and sisters, the party which sold you Ganja as a magic pill to cure every illness and a cash crop for whoever grows it to become rich? The only people who got rich from it are the capitalists.”

The issue also has split a broadly conservative public in a country with strict drug penalties, and many are worried by the rampant availability of high-strength cannabis, especially for the young.

Responding to the critics, Supachai Jaisamutr, the Bhumjaithai party lead official on cannabis, warned that politics is obscuring the value of cannabis to the Thai economy, which authorities estimate will be at least $1.2 billion by 2025.

“There’s no such a thing as too fast, too soon when it comes to legalizing weed. The whole world has already done it,” he told VOA News.

“Politicians who are now against the legalization are the same ones that voted for it to pass [first reading] in parliament. But now they’re speaking out against it because it’s one of our policies.

Decisive vote
Thais vote May 14 for 500 lower house seats.

But the election is complicated by the role of an unelected 250-member Thailand Senate, which was appointed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his allies.

The Senate is expected to swing behind whoever emerges as the leading conservative party after the polls. It also holds a third of the overall [750] votes for the prime minister, once a government has been established

The big picture is seen as a battle between pro-democracy parties shut out of power since a 2014 coup by Prayuth and conservative parties, including Prayuth’s United Thai Nation, which want to get back to leading the government.

But the cannabis issue is taking on an unexpectedly major role.

Experts forecast Bhumjaithai, led by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, could win between 80 and 100 seats, making it the second largest. That would give the party a potential deciding say about whether it is pro-democracy or the conservative bloc that can form a government.

“Whoever wants to form the government with us must support the cannabis policy,” he told a TV talk show host on April 26.

Bhumjaithai’s lawmakers joined the last government of Prayuth, but Anutin has said he is open to moving to a new administration, with one key proviso.

“We can’t keep holding the Thai people hostage like this,” Anutin said.

Illegal imports
The politics of pot have dismayed long-time advocates of marijuana decriminalization.

They fear the political noise around cannabis could mean stifling rules emerge when the fine print of the Cannabis Act is debated by the next government.

“There’s not really a chance for the law to go backwards,” said Chokwan Chopaka, who runs a dispensary.

“But there’s a high chance of rule-making that would bar people from entering the industry. Think of it like beer … alcohol … it won’t be illegal, but it will be extremely regulated.”

For small Thai cannabis players, the political feud has pushed aside the main problem the domestic industry is facing: illegal imports of American or Laotian weed, which is 4-5 times less expensive than Thai-grown buds.

“The margin is too huge to pass up on, so many dispensaries don’t give a damn about homegrown,” says Saraprathum Nattapong, a grower and cannabis entrepreneur from Samut Prakarn, a city outside Bangkok.

“It’s purely politics right now. Bhumjaithai is turning a blind eye to the big problem so they can focus on the political game.”