Five months after Thailand became the first country in Asia to legalize cannabis, boosters of the hot-button herb are fighting to keep it that way amid mounting calls to re-list the plant as a narcotic.
Cannabis sellers, growers and smokers rallied outside the national government’s headquarters in the capital, Bangkok, Tuesday to discourage authorities from placing the plant back on the country’s controlled narcotics list, with stiff penalties for possession and distribution.
“There is a very high chance that cannabis may end up being illegal again, so it’s quite a very high stake right now,” said Chokwan Chopaka of the People's Network for Cannabis Legislation in Thailand, which organized the event.
The government’s Narcotics Control Board was meeting Tuesday to discuss concerns about the reported spike in the recreational use of cannabis among adolescents since the plant was legalized in June.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters Monday that the board would not, and actually could not, re-list cannabis, as some feared.
But threats to the plant’s legal status remain.
Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who championed and approved the delisting, has stood by the move. On November 10, however, a group of physicians and lawmakers petitioned the Administrative Court, which can rule on government decrees, to reverse Anutin’s original order and in effect recriminalize cannabis.
Anutin pushed for legalization by touting the plant’s health benefits and promising to pull struggling farmers out of poverty by turning it into Thailand’s next big cash crop. Cannabis-laced products from cosmetics to ice cream from local producers now line supermarket shelves, and dozens of new dispensaries in Bangkok alone sell pot by the gram from farmers across the country.
Chokwan, who owns a Bangkok dispensary herself and showed up to Tuesday’s rally with free samples for the crowd, said recriminalizing cannabis now would reverse the gains the budding industry has made.
“So many people have come out of poverty because of it, and it’s not because they got a new job or anything like that; it’s because they had ownership [of] the things that they do,” she said.
“Cannabis is one of those things ... where you can actually help minimize disparity,” she added. “It gives people like me that extra leg up because I know a bit more than someone who has a lot of money. So, going back illegal again, all this money that has been made legally — I’ve been paying my taxes, everything is all on point — all of that money is going to disappear.”
Natasha Schmahl, an ethnic Thai and cannabis advocate who showed up at the rally with her own sign, said she and her German husband were building what will be the country’s first house made almost entirely of hemp in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. She said recriminalizing the plant would once again rob much of the country of the plant’s health and environmental bounty.
'Gift from Mother Nature'
“This plant needs to stop being criminalized because it’s a plant and it’s a gift from Mother Nature,” she said. “Of course there need to be rules and regulations around legalization, but to keep it criminalized ... and not being able to use the benefits of nature giving us all these medicines is just not helping humanity, and that’s not the way we should move forward.”
It's the current lack of strict rules and regulations that has critics worried.
The Health Ministry took cannabis off Thailand’s narcotics list before parliament could pass comprehensive legislation clearly defining its legal use, production, sale and import-export. The House of Representatives voted in September to withdraw a bill proposed by Anutin’s Bhumjaithai party so that an ad-hoc committee could keep working on the fine print. Critics of the draft complained that it failed to emphasize medical over recreational use and lacked guardrails to keep cannabis out of the hands of children and adolescents.
Smith Srisont is president of the Forensic Physicians Association of Thailand, which helped spearhead the petition urging the courts to recriminalizing cannabis. He said Thai social media include many videos of students lighting up, and that cases of youngsters being hospitalized for consuming too much have been rising since June.
“Because in Thailand it’s freely to use, the children can use it very easy; this is the problem,” he told VOA by phone. “It can cause psychiatric problems, it can cause depression problem in children, and it can change the brain of children, and it can cause lower IQ in the children ... if they use early.”
Srisont also accused the Health Ministry of being disingenuous in its claims to be promoting cannabis for its health benefits alone, a charge the ministry has denied.
“They promote to mix with food, mix with everything. This is recreational, but they lie, they lie that this is medical,” he said. “This is another problem.”
Chokwan, of the People’s Network, believes the reports of adolescents abusing cannabis are being blown out of proportion, especially in the context of underage smoking or drinking rates. As her group’s full name declares, she supports legislation but says recriminalizing cannabis would only drive most users and sellers underground, making the industry harder to control.
Rather than hitting reverse, Chokwan said the government should be doing more to educate the public — adults and adolescents alike — about cannabis, as she does with her own children.
“Cannabis is my business, cannabis is all around my house. My kids does not access it,” she said. “We discuss it, we talk about it, we have conversation around it, and I explain how it’s used, why it’s used, and they don’t want to go anywhere near it because it’s not something that they care for.”
Another vote on the cannabis bill is set for December 7.