Thailand moves to ban recreational cannabis use, 18 months after historic decriminalization

Farm workers hang newly harvested marijuana to dry at Trio Herbal Farms on December 08, 2022 in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Farm workers hang newly harvested marijuana to dry at Trio Herbal Farms on December 08, 2022 in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.Lauren DeCicca/Getty ImagesBangkok, ThailandCNN — 

Thailand’s new government is moving ahead to pass new legisalation banning cannabis for recreational use in a major reversal 18 months after the country became the first in Asia to decriminalize the plant.

The relaxed laws saw a lucrative cannabis industry catering to locals and foreigners alike boom across the Southeast Asian nation, but a new conservative coalition government came to power late last year vowing to tighten the rules and only allow medical use.

A draft bill was released on Tuesday by Thailand’s health ministry outlining hefty fines or prison sentences of up to one year for offenders – or both.

Cannabis and cannabis-related products will be limited to medical and health purposes only, the bill states, echoing Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s pledge in September that his new government will “rectify” laws on cannabis within the next six months.

Smoking marijuana in public remained illegal even under the relaxed laws, but the proposed new laws will ban advertising and marketing campaigns for cannabis buds and extracts, and other cannabis products.

An earlier draft bill failed to win parliamentary approval in November.

Thavisin has been vocal about banning recreational cannabis and stated in several media interviews that drug abuse is “a big problem for Thailand.”

CNN has reached out to Thailand’s Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew for further comment about the new proposal.

A cannabis stall in Pattaya, Thailand, on Sunday, March 5, 2023.

A cannabis stall in Pattaya, Thailand, on Sunday, March 5, 2023.Andre Malerba/Bloomberg/Getty images

Thailand became the first country in Asia to fully decriminalize cannabis in June 2022, a move years in the making and a rarity in a region where many countries give long jail terms and even death sentences for people convicted of marijuana possession, consumption or trafficking.

In nearby Hong Kong, even non-psychoactive cannabidoil (CBD) is outlawed.

Singapore maintains the death penalty for trafficking drugs, and residents traveling to Thailand are warned they could still be prosecuted on return if they smoke weed overseas.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Thailand since 2018, but decriminalization in 2022 took things a step further, making it no longer a crime to grow and trade marijuana and hemp products, or to use any parts of the plant to treat illnesses.

Tourists shop cannabis at the RG420 cannabis store, at Khaosan Road, one of the favourite tourist spots in Bangkok, Thailand, July 31, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A weed hangover? Why Thailand’s having second thoughts about decriminalizing cannabis

Since then, thousands of cannabis dispensaries have sprung up across Thailand, as well as other cannabis-themed businesses like weed cafes and hemp spas and beauty treatment. Cities like Chiang Mai and the capital Bangkok have even held weed festivals, and decriminalization has been a major draw for tourists.

But Anutin Charnvirakul, the former health minister who strongly lobbied for cannabis legalization in the country, previously told CNN that the intention was never to allow Thais and tourists to smoke weed recreationally in public.

“Thailand will promote cannabis policies for medical purposes. There has never once been a moment that we would think about advocating people to use cannabis in terms of recreation – or use it in a way that it could irritate others,” Anutin said.

“We [have always] emphasized using cannabis extractions and raw materials for medical purposes and for health.”

Pro-legislation advocates have argued that the cannabis boom across Thailand has helped many Thais, from farmers to small business owners and workers behind the counter.

Cannabis entrepreneurs previously told CNN that they were strongly against any legalization that would hurt the growing multi-billion dollar industry.

The Future Cannabis Network, an advocacy group in Thailand, expressed disappointment at the government’s actions and stressed the importance of “public involvement.”

Kitty Chopaka, a Bangkok-based cannabis entrepreneur who has pushed for cannabis legalization for years, called it a knee jerk reaction from the government and said that it was “not unexpected.”

“But no matter what happens with the incoming cannabis regulations, it is now too late for cannabis to go back to being classified as narcotics.”

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