Debate on recreational cannabis use heats up ahead of Thai elections

By Nayara Batschke and Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok, May 11 (EFE).- The lucrative trade in recreational cannabis, which has turned Thailand into the marijuana hub of Asia, has emerged as an issue that has sharply divided political parties and voters ahead of Sunday’s general elections.

Although the Thai people’s main priorities are issues such as jobs, inflation and recovery in the tourism sector, the emergence of thousands of marijuana shops since the plant’s cultivation was decriminalized in 2022 has become a very divisive issue, with many opposition parties criticizing the trend.

Thailand, which earlier penalized marijuana trade with up to 15 years in prison, last year became the only Asian country where the substance is available in shops and dispensaries for recreational use, as the result of a legal vacuum on the issue.

Umarat Obchoey, a 20-year-old employee of a marijuana shop in Bangkok, told EFE that in her opinion no party would dare to reverse the decriminalization of the intoxicant, although some parties such as the progressive Move Forward have called for limiting sales to medicinal purposes only.

“Current social problems in the society are linked to marijuana, and if it can be controlled and used for medical purposes, or if only licensed shops are allowed to sell it, this can be a positive development,” Umarat said while working behind the counter at the Thai Cannabis club, surrounded by different types of marijuana buds on display.

The paradox is that it was the pro-military ruling coalition Bhumijaithai – which lays great stress on law and order – which brought about the legal reform on marijuana, although insisting that it only wanted to promote medicinal use.

However, as the government failed to bring a legislation to regulate the consumption and trade of cannabis before the polls, dispensaries have proliferated and the substance is freely available.

Opposition parties Pheu Thai and Move Forward – which have appeared as the first and second choice of voters in pre-election surveys – have called for a stricter regulation of marijuana, only allowing medicinal use.

Meanwhile, the owners of marijuana dispensaries are waiting to see how things develop after the elections.

“I think anything can happen, and the worst could be that they shut down the entire industry,” Melody, another employee at a recreational cannabis establishment in Bangkok, told EFE.

She said that a large number of people working in the industry could be affected by such a move, and called for regulation and legal safeguards for the sector.

Kajkanit Gem, head of the pioneering cannabis products company Taratera, opined that the parties that come to power would continue to back the drug because it boosts the economy and tourism.

“We have one million people registered on an app that monitors those who grow cannabis, and these are one million votes,” the entrepreneur boasted.

The ruling party – led by the outgoing health minister Anutin Charnvirakul – has criticized the opposition’s stand as politically motivated, because they had voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

Although Pheu Thai and Move Forward were leading the polls with 38 and 33 percent support and Bhumjaithai was shown to have barely 2.9 percent backing, winning the popular vote may not be sufficient to form the government as the military controls 250 seats in the 500-member parliament, even after the formal end of the last junta rule (2014-2019). EFE


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