Thailand's new prime minister has vowed to permit the use of cannabis for medical purposes only, a little more than year after his country became the first in Asia to decriminalize weed.
Some advocates in Thailand warn that banning the leisure use of marijuana could be chaotic and costly, while others say it could help bring order to the rapidly expanding industry.
Speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin had this blunt response when asked about the future of cannabis in Thailand.
"For medical reasons only," he told Bloomberg. "We need the law. We need to rewrite. We have an agreement among all the 11 parties that this will be this government's policy, because the problem about drugs has been widespread lately. It will be regulated for medical use."
When asked if cannabis could be regulated for leisure use, the prime minister sharply responded, "No."
Srettha heads the Pheu Thai party and an 11-party coalition that leads Thailand's government. He says the coalition will introduce legislation within the next six months.
The prime minister is not the only one who has voiced concern. The Center for Addiction Studies also recently called for recreational cannabis to be banned, The Bangkok Post reported.
Plans to restrict the use of cannabis have prompted a mixed reaction in Thailand.
Kitty Chopaka, a cannabis activist in Thailand, owns a small cannabis shop in Bangkok called Chopaka. Her store sells more than 50 cannabis strains that have different potencies and effects and caters to both Thai and foreign customers.
She said she's hopeful the prime minister's comments are not to be taken literally.
"What I hope it meant was that he will get rid of all those places that don't have any licenses or get rid of all illegal cannabis ... coming in from over the borders. Rather than focusing on preying on the poor and starting a war on cannabis just as much as the war on drugs," she told VOA.
Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize cannabis for medical use in 2018. But it wasn't until June 2022 that Thailand's Food and Drug Administration officially delisted cannabis that does not exceed 0.2% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, from the country's narcotics list, legalizing possession, cultivation, distribution, consumption and sales.
Since then, more than 1 million people have registered with the Thai government to grow the plant. Earlier this year, the Thai Chamber of Commerce estimated the cannabis sector could be worth $1.2 billion by 2025.
Now, with the cannabis market in limbo, the economic potential for Thailand may be significantly reduced.
But Jayne MacDougall, the executive director of the Phuket Hotels Association, says the regulation of cannabis will benefit tourism.
"As an association, we believe to regulate the use of cannabis for medical purposes will strengthen tourism for health and wellness and support Phuket's place as a wellness hub. The availability of cannabis without regulation undermines this objective," she told VOA.
"This will not be a significant factor in the rebound of tourism, nor will it be reflected in hotel bookings. We believe tourists will see this as a responsible move on the part of the Thai government that will benefit both tourism and a large community," she said.
Tourism is one of the pillars of Thailand's economy. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it contributed 11.5% to Thailand's GDP. Thailand expects 28 million international arrivals by the end of this year.
But Rattapon Sanrak, founder and president of Highland Network, a cannabis organization in Thailand, says regulating cannabis this way will disrupt Thai livelihoods.
"How many lives would be disrupted? How many people would face legal consequences? How many jobs would be lost? The subsequent criminal activity resulting from these impacts would be significant," he told VOA.
The Highland group runs the Highland Café in Bangkok. It is one of nearly 6,000 weed establishments that have opened throughout the country in the past year, with over 1,200 in the Thai capital alone.
"Everything has progressed so far that it's become a rapidly expanding industry with a lot of people and investment involved. It's hard to imagine what would happen if the government were to put cannabis back on the controlled substances list today. Doing something like this doesn't solve any problems, it just pushes cannabis back underground, leading to one word: chaos."
Tanaset Chodchinnapath and Kittichot Vasana co-manage Jackson Farm, a small cannabis farm in the Bangkok suburbs. They sell their product to licensed cannabis stores in the city, and Chopaka is one of their customers.
Although Kittichot says there is concern about a cannabis ban, he says selling their homegrown cannabis for medical use will still benefit them.
"We worry a bit. If cannabis becomes illegal, the underground growers will maybe have more profit," he told VOA.
"Legal cannabis in Thailand has imported products from the USA, and Europe, and that product cuts our price down. It's not good. If we legalize cannabis, but if we have to improve [our cannabis] for medical purposes, [I think] it will be better. We can grow to sell our products to doctors, for the medical use," he added.
Activist Kitty Chopaka says she wants cannabis to be viewed differently.
"I like the idea of cannabis being in the realm of self-care. It's not recreational. It's not medical. It can be something that can be consumed depending on what kind of ailments or what uncomfortableness you have," she said.
But if a ban does come into effect, she admits her suppliers and her own family will take a hit financially.
"For the shop we have eight employees that are on our social security. I support over 50 farms in my shop, and one farm usually equates to a minimum of one to five families," she said. "For just one shop, we already have 100 lives that this will involve. And I will have to rethink where I send my children to school. Because right now, cannabis is the thing that is paying my kids' tuition."