Cannabis backpedalling in Thailand reflects general election woes

Cannabis shops and cafes are common in Bangkok and Pattaya, but political games are now afoot.

The latest Ministry of Health “orders” ban the smoking of cannabis flowers in any business premises (unless supervised by a medical expert) and forbids selling via vending machines, mobile retailers or commercial advertising at a range of premises including amusement parks, zoos and a list of places where children might gather. Weed cafes, which have recently become common in Pattaya, appear to be operating illegally or under the radar. Much will depend on whether the police choose to enforce “orders” which are not derived from an act of parliament.

The ongoing ambiguity reflects the maneuvering by Thai political leaders in advance of the general election to be held early next year. The Bhumjaithai party, an important coalition partner led by health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, pushed for decriminalization of ganja last summer to increase popularity by allowing citizens to grow and sell the crop. The recent ministry “orders” are an attempt at compromise in view of bad publicity about schoolchildren smoking in playgrounds, high hospital admissions after illegally high doses and reports that Bangkok and Pattaya have become the New Amsterdam.

Pheu Thai, the main opposition party, wants cannabis to be made an illegal narcotic once again which would ban possession, cultivation and smoking without medical supervision. Their leaders argue that weed liberalization has gone too far and are banking on conservative public opinion agreeing. The smaller Democrat Party is particularly suspicious of cannabis cafes and dispensaries posing as medical clinics but in reality encouraging leisure smoking. Leaders quote a recent Chulalongkorn university study which has found that 30 percent of cannabis-infused drinks exceeded the legal THC levels.

Meanwhile, tourists and expats say they are still confused about the status of leisure smoking. Websites and media posts such as Universal Cannabis and MJBizDaily say they are deluged with enquiries. For the moment, cannabis smoking in private is legal, although there is a debate about the status of hotels in this context. It is certainly legal to buy cannabis in units with qualified medical personnel on duty, but other retail outlets are now suspect. It is also legal to purchase and consume ganja-infused food and drink as long as the 2 percent THC level is not breeched. The elephant in the room is now enforcement, or lack of it. The Ministry of Health has too few inspectors even to begin to check the streets. The police so far have remained silent.