Image Source: A woman works inside a cannabis shop on Khao San Road, one of Bangkok’s favourite tourist spots. (Photo: Reuters)
It might soon be impossible to purchase marijuana on the streets of Bangkok or Phuket.
The majority of the parties running in Sunday’s national election are calling for the measure to be repealed and restrict the use of cannabis to medical purposes. This is a change from four years ago, when the Bhumjaithai Party won almost four million votes on a platform promising to decriminalize cannabis. At the time, they were the third-largest bloc in a military-backed government.
Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the opposition Pheu Thai Party’s front-runner for prime minister, declared at a recent rally: “I don’t want my children to grow up in a country where drugs are easy to find and cannabis is liberalized.” We must suppress drug use.
Cannabis has gained political traction after decriminalization went into force roughly a year ago, splitting major parties and the 52.3 million voters in the nation. People who disagree with the policy frequently point to growing worries about the drug’s detrimental effects on society.
But there has also been annoyance with the legal void that resulted from the plant’s decriminalization, which inadvertently launched a new sector before politicians could create legislation to control it. A few months later, legislation to limit the drug’s usage in more contexts was stymied in the parliament because some legislators felt it did not go far enough to curtail recreational use. The lower House was dissolved shortly after to make room for the next election.
The cannabis industry flourished with little regulation. The cannabis sector was projected to be worth US$1 billion by 2025, from the estimated 4.500 shops that distribute it in every province of the nation to the more than one million farmers who grow the plant, according to the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC).
Everyone connected to that supply chain is now waiting to see the results of the weekend election.
One of them is 60-year-old Olarn Youkanchanaset, who claims to have invested more than a million baht in setting up two greenhouses and an indoor growing facility in the rear of his home in Buri Ram, Thailand’s “weed capital” and a bastion of Bhumjaithai.
In an interview, Mr. Olarn said how being surrounded by rows of grow lights that are shining down on dozens of flowering plants makes him feel like he is cast adrift in the ocean. Cannabis buds were drying inside his home in a spare bedroom he had turned into a drying and inventory room. “I will support any party that can push for cannabis regulation.”
Many farmers agree with Mr. Olarn’s sentiment, particularly in Buriram, where street signs displaying the image of Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul promise a variety of programs to improve people’s standard of living if he is elected to office.
As it did in 2019 when he backed current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former junta chief, Mr. Anutin is aware that the election may put him into a king-making role for the next prime minister, despite surveys showing other parties with a larger lead. In an interview, Mr. Anutin stated that getting the Bhumjaithai Party’s support would depend on passage of the cannabis control law, which failed in the last legislature.
“Bhumjaithai is the only party that will ensure the cannabis policy continues onward with a law to support it,” he claimed.
Pheu Thai, the party predicted in all pre-election surveys to win the most seats in the new 500-member House of Representatives, is one of those that threatens to completely undo the strategy.
According to Pheu Thai, preserving the medical usage of cannabis while re-listing it as a narcotic will prevent it from being used recreationally, which is corrupting Thai young. Even the liberal Move Forward Party, which has favored liberalization in most other sectors, is pushing for this, arguing that it is vital to start over before progressively reopening cannabis use to a wider audience.
Farmers fear losing a sizable source of revenue so soon after gaining it, away from the politics and disputes in Bangkok. 14 million farmers, the largest voting bloc in the nation, have endured unstable export prices for important agricultural products like rice and rubber as well as natural disasters like drought and floods for many years. They have changed their perspective about cannabis in just a year, seeing it as a more reliable lifeline that helps them earn more money and live better.
According to Siwasan Khobjaiklang, a 41-year-old leader of a network called Sanom that consists of seven farms owned by Buri Ram’s young farmers, farmers can earn about 500,000 baht for a harvest of cannabis buds in one rai, or 0.4 acres, as opposed to about 8,000 baht for rice grown in the same area.
Mr. Siwasan claims that his ideal scenario is for Thailand to have a cannabis law that controls marijuana cultivation and sales, enabling farmers to more easily connect with local companies and even export their goods.
The group’s election choices may be relatively straightforward and especially significant given the stakes involved.
At his farm, where cannabis plants towered over vegetable patches, Mr. Siwasan remarked during an interview, “Cannabis is being held as a political hostage.” It has barely progressed halfway toward the goal, which is challenging to realize without legal clarity.
It’s uncertain how they’ll respond if Thailand’s legislation, which already permits restricted cannabis use in food and cosmetics, is relaxed.
According to Kajkanit Sakdisubha, the founder of Taratera, which purchases cannabis from local producers to dispense in its five dispensaries in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the Bhumjaithai Party “did what was promised” when it achieved cannabis decriminalization. If the outcome is different, I think a lot of people will be out on the streets debating whether they should shut down their businesses and farms because a different party is in power and has a different viewpoint.