What MPs have described as a ‘distorted’ marijuana bill which was supposed to control the recreational use of the drug has instead provided a framework for just that which it was supposed to suppress with minor, obvious and insignificant restrictions. The revolt against the bill in September has already led to bad blood between the Bhumjaithai Party and Democrat Party in the coalition government. It will be a contentious issue for the next General Election when the public will have its voice on the subject. It is an issue which will decide the future course of the populist Bhumjaithai Party which has now staked its future on the mission to legalise pot and placing it at the centre of the economy.
On Tuesday, a few hundred protesters took to the streets of Bangkok calling for Thailand’s cannabis or marijuana revolution, launched on June 9th last by the Bhumjaithai Party and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul, not to be rolled back. However, with a significant grassroots movement at constituency level opposed to the current cannabis free for all and a majority of politicians in parliament determined to put a stop to the situation, the future of the country’s growing number of cannabis joint shops and vision of the Bhumjaithai Party may be soon be put to the test and sword. Top medical figures and politicians on November 10th submitted a petition to the Administrative Court to strike down Minister Anutin’s ministerial order and pot legalisation revolution. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that this will be a hot and divisive issue in the General Election next year with a vote for the Bhumjaithai Party becoming a vote for the future of cannabis in Thailand, a drug that is still opposed by many and only used by a small minority for recreational purposes.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam came out on Tuesday to suggest that a regulation signed by the Minister of Public Health based on a secondary or minor law, the Protection and Promotion of Traditional Thai Medicine Wisdom Act, is being brought forward as a way to help control the widespread recreational use of cannabis in Thailand which has sparked a revolt among lawmakers across the political spectrum not only within the opposition benches but within the Democrat Party, a key coalition partner and also, it is reported, among a large number of MPs associated with the Palang Pracharat Party.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu suggests that the new regulation issued by the Ministry of Public Health which will only become effective on May 24th 2023, could be used to control the use of and sale of the flowers or buds of the cannabis plant which is the basis for the now hectic commercial sale of marijuana at street and retail level in the country’s budding cannabis free for all which has morphed into an industry serving the widespread recreational use of cannabis, something that is already drawing international media attention, placing Thailand in the spotlight as the new marijuana capital of the world.
Cannabis was strictly illegal in Thailand for 87 years until the morning of June 9th when it suddenly became a free for all drug openly sold and used
It is all a distinct reversal after nearly nine decades. The drug was first criminalised in Thailand in 1935 or eighty-seven years ago.
Thailand, up to this year has been seen as a strict conservative country where most people had no truck with illicit narcotics often linked with the underworld and criminality.
Yet, overnight on June 9th, Thailand woke up to a new world of legal cannabis with police withdrawing for enforcement activities against the drug and prisoners either being held or convicted of cannabis-related offences being released from prison en masse.
The current environment for the sale and use of cannabis is even less regulated than in countries such as Canada and Uruguay which were the first two countries to decriminalise the drug nationally.
This comes as the cannabis deregulation programme, a mission of the populist Bhumjaithai Party, is emerging as a key political issue and one on which the next General Election may well be fought.
Over the past week, Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul has insisted to reporters that recriminalisation of cannabis is simply not possible as the power to remove it from the narcotics schedule rests with him and that he had already done so.
Poll shows 72% of Thai people are uneasy about the free availability of the drug and lack of control
The decriminalisation of the drug without a viable law to regulate its consumption has sparked public protest and a political movement from the grassroots level, particularly in Thailand’s conservative southern provinces.
While the media in Bangkok talk about the move being popular and the growth of the Bhumjaithai Party, the opinion polls consistently show only 2% to 2.5% public support for the party.
It comes as the opposition, led by the Pheu Thai Party and the Move Forward Party, have now made moves to force the minister or the government to again place the drug on the schedule 5 list of narcotics and rescind the February 8th order made by Minister Anutin following cabinet approval and which came into effect on June 9th.
Revolt in the House of Representatives in September by MPs across the floor in opposition to the new law has divided the coalition and caused bad faith
The government is scrambling to act in response to what is a revolt from the House of Representatives over the past few months in opposition to the movement by the Bhumjaithai Party to legalise marijuana or cannabis for widespread recreational use which was not what the cabinet agreed to earlier in the year.
The defeat of the marijuana bill in the House of Representatives in September has sewn a deep division between the Democrat Party and the Bhumjaithai Party with Minister Anutin recently on record as making personal remarks about the Democrat Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit who has insisted that his party’s opposition to the liberalisation of cannabis was deep-seated and linked to what it’s MPs felt was in the public interest.
This has resulted in Thailand now finding itself in a position where pot or cannabis is more freely available than in any other place in the world, a situation that has shocked conservative politicians and those in the medical community in Thailand who are reporting significant negative side effects since June 9th when marijuana was withdrawn from the lists of illicit narcotics and therefore became no longer be a source of police action.
Rising cases of side effects from increased cannabis consumption reported from hospital Emergency Rooms even since June highlighted in scientific report
In early November, a detailed scientific report prepared by Dr Muhammad Fahmee Talib of Prince of Songkla University’s Faculty of Medicine showed that emergency room admissions of people suffering from cannabis consumption-related problems have risen by 566% since the new legal dispensation came into effect in June with clear indications that adverse reactions to the drug including mental health incidents are occurring in spiralling numbers.
Indeed, the vocal opposition to the legalisation of marijuana is coming from the medical community in Thailand.
In July, 851 doctors at Ramathibodi Hospital in Bangkok signed a letter demanding that the drug be relisted as an illicit narcotic as before.
Cannabis remains illegal as ministers push through a law controlling its use by the public after decriminalisation
One of the key campaigners against the drug is Dr Smith Srisont, the President of the Forensic Physician Association of Thailand (FPAT).
Opposition to the current situation has also been voiced by senior officials at the Ministry of Public Health, the government department which has sparked the problem due to the order signed by Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul on February 8th after approval was given by the cabinet to decriminalise the drug strictly based on a corresponding law or bill to control its use, a law which was intended to outlaw recreational use of the drug.
Ambiguous and ‘distorted’ nature of the cannabis law put to parliament led to the revolt of MPs against the Bhumjaithai Party’s crusade to make pot legal
The eventual ambiguous nature of this bill drafted by a committee led by the Bhumjaithai Party is what sparked a revolt in parliament in September which saw the proposed law soundly defeated in a major reversal for the Bhumjaithai Party with reports on the ground, particularly in southern provinces and from MPs, that the situation with cannabis and the proliferation of drugs in the kingdom is a rising issue among voters who are angry at violent crime levels and believe it is associated with drugs.
The current free for all has seen a large number of pot or cannabis sales outlets throughout the kingdom, many selling the flowers or buds of the plant with a THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) value well above the 0.2% stipulated by law.
10% of the public smoke marijuana for recreational purposes in Thailand, and 7% for medical purposes
Nevertheless, without a clear legal mandate for action, the Royal Thai Police has consistently declined government efforts to take widespread action to crack down on what is happening on the ground.
Cannabis is only used by 17% of Thai people, 67.02% of people have never touched the substance in their lifetime as unease grows over free for all
The most recent National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) poll dealing with this issue in Thailand showed that only 17% of the population regularly uses marijuana or cannabis with 7% using it for medical purposes while 10% use it as a recreational drug or relaxant.
The same research, while showing a slight majority of 52% approving the legalisation of marijuana on commercial grounds also showed that 72% expressed anxiety about the negative side effects of its widespread availability for use among the public.
67.02% of the public had never experienced cannabis in any form.
Deputy PM and legal advisor accepts secondary laws and regulations are of limited effect in controlling the recreational sale and use of marijuana
On Tuesday, Mr Wissanu Krea-ngam was referring to an order under secondary legislation signed by the Minister of Public Health on the 11th of November which is to be published in the Royal Gazette on November 24th but which will not come into effect until May 24th next.
He accepted that the new provision would not provide the sort of protection and control against abuse of the drug being sought by concerned MPs who are now a majority in the House of Representatives.
The status quo, in effect, preserves the widespread use of cannabis for recreational purposes but the deputy prime minister suggested it may help to deal with the vacuum caused by the failure of the House of Representatives to pass a law to achieve this.
The viability of such a bill is increasingly in doubt because of its nature with opposition MPs describing the bill drafted as ‘distorted’ and far from fulfilling its original intention to outlaw the recreational use of the drug.
New law intending to restrict marijuana for recreational use was touted by the minister this summer as having a mechanism to legalise it
Indeed, earlier in the summer, the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul touted a provision in the new law which would allow a resolution at the committee level in parliament to effectively legalise marijuana across the board for recreational use although, at the same time, he insists on maintaining that the current initiative and proposed law does not legalise marijuana for recreational use even though this is what has happened on the ground.
While Mr Anutin’s claim may be true in legal terms, the de facto situation on the ground in Bangkok and other population centres is that the drug has been legalised for recreational use and the law, as it currently stands, would not reverse the revolution that has occurred since June which is the commercialisation of cannabis buds or flower for sale at sky levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) ranging from 4% to 25%, far higher than the legally set limit of 0.2%, a limit which the Royal Thai Police cannot effectively enforce.
Police were left scrambling in June over the enforcement of Road Traffic law against drivers high on marijuana
Otherwise, all the currently open and popular cannabis shops would be shut down but there is no clear law or legal regime for police detection or enforcement of such a regime.
In the summer, senior police officers voiced concerns about this including the threat of car drivers under the influence of marijuana wreaking havoc on Thai roads.
Regulation to control cannabis only comes into effect in May 2023 well after the next General Election
On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s top legal advisor, accepted that the latest Ministry of Public Health regulation, when it comes into force next May, would still see the continued sale and smoking of cannabis as a recreational drug on the Khao San Road in Bangkok.
He suggested that diverse laws may have to be used or the current law being considered in parliament amended to achieve the goal of putting cannabis or marijuana back under legal wraps.
He pointed out that the preparation and sale of cannabis flowers in shops and commercial establishments is currently illegal under Thai law and that special permission or licence must be sought for such activities.
At the same time, he accepted the reality that enforcement of such provisions is extremely difficult and challenging.
The situation is confusing which is why the Royal Thai Police, during the summer, demurred when requested by the Ministry of Public Health to take a stronger line in controlling the sale and use of the drug under the current legal situation.
Opposition and most House MPs want pot relisted illegal narcotic in a dispute that is increasingly being seen as a challenge to representative democracy
The government’s legal advisor also pointed out that the new regulation issued by the Ministry of Public Health will not come into effect until May 24th next after being published in the Royal Gazette this week.
Meanwhile, the opposition Pheu Thai Party is also talking about the power that exists at the provincial and local authority level to control and indeed outlaw the sale and consumption of cannabis although most people agree that a national law and enforcement regime is more desirable.
On Tuesday also, the MP for Maha Sarakham and Opposition Chief Whip Suthin Klangsaeng indicated that the way forward for now, with no agreement likely on the cannabis bill in parliament, is to have the drug reinstated as an illicit narcotic to end the confusion.
He said that this was necessary, in the absence of comprehensive legislation, to control abuses and the wholesale recreational use of cannabis as it now exists.
He also expressed doubt that any such provision will pass the House of Representatives at this time given the difference in interpretations and attitudes between the Bhumjaithai Party’s stance and other parties in parliament.
The deepening discussion in parliament on the issue is increasingly being seen as a challenge to representative democracy with the intransigence of the Bhumjaithai Party and its party leader’s insistence that MPs must change their attitudes towards the drug itself creating even stiffer opposition.
Administrative Court asked on November 10th to strike down Mr Anutin’s ministerial order signed on February 8th 2022 in the interests of public health
Mr Suthin said he was hopeful the Administrative Court will intervene to strike down the ministerial order earlier this year delisting the narcotic from the scheduled list of illegal drugs.
This order signed by the minister had long been opposed by the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) which is tasked with stamping out illicit drug consumption in Thailand.
Mr Suthin said such a course was the only safe option until a consensus can be reached on a marijuana bill that achieves the right balance between allowing the use of the drug for essential medical purposes and its abuse as a recreational substance.
Meanwhile, Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul has reacted strongly to any claim that his order may be reversed.
The minister said that it had nothing to do with the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) and suggested that the move against his party’s signature achievement while in power was politically motivated and ill-conceived.
Minister remains implacable on the issue
Asked by reporters if the drug could yet be recriminalised or made illegal he said: ‘If you ask me, it can’t be.’
The minister insisted that he had the authority to decriminalise the drug and that this could not be reversed.
He said that, as the minister concerned, he had already exercised his authority. That, he argued, was the end of the matter as regards the status of cannabis or marijuana as a drug.
‘This power should not be tied to other people and the procedure is clear that when the minister signed it was sent to the Office of the Cabinet Secretary and announced in the Royal Gazette. There is still no message anywhere saying that this power can be restrained or objected to. Because the minister is bigger than the cabinet secretary, they cannot protest,’ said Mr Anutin.
Minister Anutin again emphasised that there is nothing wrong with his marijuana programme and that the changes that have been brought about by it were beneficial to the people and the wider economy.
He again underlined that he was trying to find a way to regulate and eliminate the abuse of the drug but ruled out reversing the position to the previous status quo as existed before his order came into effect in June.
He insisted that the current legal situation does not legalise the recreational use of cannabis.
While this may be the case ‘de jure’ or according to the law particularly concerning the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) legal limit of 0.2%, it is not ‘de facto’ what is happening on the ground in the absence of clear criminal sanctions against those selling and imbibing the drug to get a recreational high which is what is creating mounting opposition exacerbated by international media reports and a huge growth in colourful retail outlets selling cannabis joints and buds with stratospheric levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Anutin insists that only he has the power concerning this matter and that his cannabis revolution cannot be put in reverse course by other bodies
Mr Anutin has dismissed any effort by the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) to reverse the marijuana legalisation process saying that a committee of the drug suppression agency chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha had appointed Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam to find a legal solution to the current impasse which is becoming daily more pointed and political.
On November 10th, the Director of the Medical Council, Dr Smith Srisont and other leading figures including the Pheu Thai Party’s Suthin Klangsaeng and other political representatives from opposition parties filed a lawsuit with the Central Administrative Court seeking to reverse the order signed by Anutin Charnvirakul as Minister of Public Health on February 8th 2022 delisting marijuana as a scheduled 5 listed narcotic.
The applicants have also requested the court to issue a temporary injunction suspending the minister’s order pending its judgement given the danger to public health posed by the drug.