Thailand's cannabis legalization policy needs reform and not a reversal

Research has shown that taking cannabis off the underground illegal market helps drive it out of the illicit drug trade.
Research has shown that taking cannabis off the underground illegal market helps drive it out of the illicit drug trade.


  • Banning marijuana again will hurt those who’ve gained from its liberalization. If Bangkok’s easy-weed policy hasn’t worked out as expected, the drug needs better regulation, not rejection.

Turns out you can have too much of a good thing. Last week, Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin ordered a U-turn on the country’s cannabis policy, saying the plant should soon be classified as a narcotic again and its use limited to medical and health purposes. 

This decision comes two years after former premier Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s administration decriminalized the drug. His aim? To bring tourists back to Thailand after the pandemic, open up a multibillion-dollar medical marijuana business opportunity and give farmers another cash crop to grow.

Thavisin’s announcement shouldn’t come as a surprise. The new government has been weighing its options. The weed experiment hasn’t gone as planned. Reversing it won’t be easy, but the kingdom should persevere trying to regulate this sector—even if the consequences are painful. Ignoring it will affect Thai youth and social harmony. Ultimately, the industry is only benefiting businesses, not poor farmers.

Walking through Bangkok’s narrow alleyways recently, it was impossible to miss the numerous cafes that spilt on to the streets or the distinct scent of marijuana wafting through the balmy air. These dispensaries sprang up seemingly overnight after the 2022 decision to legalize cannabis. Even then it was controversial—and ever since, competing forces have been trying to reverse the decision. 

Of course, there can be benefits in decriminalizing marijuana. One is less pressure on courts and prisons. There are major overcrowding issues in Thai jails, where 75% of inmates are there on drug-related charges. Research has also shown that taking cannabis off the underground illegal market helps drive it out of the illicit drug trade.

Many parts of the US have already been through this evolution. Cities like New York have adopted a far more liberal approach to decriminalization, but are also struggling with the consequences. It is unlikely that Thailand could learn from its experience. Culturally it is a far more conservative society, and sits in a region with harsh drug laws around possession and consumption.

Also read: Biden administration proposes historic reclassification of marijuana, aligning federal policy with public opinion

Thailand used to have those laws too, but now it is the anomaly in Southeast Asia. Singapore, for instance, imposes the death penalty for trafficking. It considers cannabis a highly addictive narcotic, has banned its consumption, and runs campaigns that seek to show how much damage it has caused in other countries.

In Indonesia, the death penalty is also used as a deterrent, although until recently it was rarely enforced. I had reported on the harsh drug laws and outgoing president Joko Widodo administration’s decision to prioritize cracking down on drugs. It’s a policy that is likely to be continued under the next leader, Prabowo Subianto.

In contrast, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2019. Almost 8,000 dispensaries and many consumer-agro firms have cropped up across the country, selling everything from cannabis buds and oil extracts to weed-infused candy and baked goods. 

Foreigners have also reportedly entered the unregulated market, opening shops and selling weed. Under current decriminalization laws, cannabis products must not contain more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that provides a high sensation, to be considered lawful.

Part of the push to legalize the plant was motivated by economics: The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said in a 2022 report that the domestic cannabis industry could be worth $1.2 billion by 2025. But the U-turn is also being prompted by some real concerns, particularly over the social and health impact on young people. 

Also read: The big problem for marijuana companies? What to do with all that cash

Recent research has shows that a quarter of 18-to-65-year-olds had used cannabis since decriminalization— up from 2.2% in 2019. Young people are also smoking more weed: 10 times as much. Anecdotally, doctors have reported more patients seeking treatment after they’ve fallen ill or tried quitting cannabis. 

If the government does push through with its plans and classifies cannabis as a category-five drug, its possession could result in a jail sentence of up to 15 years and a maximum fine of 1.5 million baht ($40,600).

Banning the drug outright will no doubt cause a lot of pain to farmers, small business owners, tourists and consumers. A middle-ground approach to return to medical usage would be wise. Taxing marijuana would also help to boost government coffers, and weeding out foreigners from the trade would help to regulate the sector and allow locals to benefit more—which was policy’s the original intent. Thailand has enjoyed the high from this lucrative field long enough. It is now time for a managed and rational come down. ©bloomberg

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