Thailand legalized the cultivation and consumption of marijuana this month, reversing a hardline approach to long prison sentences and even the death penalty for drug offenses. The BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, reports on what’s behind the dramatic shift.
Twenty-one years ago, I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my journalistic career. We were invited to watch and film the execution of five prisoners — four of them convicted drug dealers by firing squad at Bangkok’s Bangkwan Prison.
The look on the faces of those men as they walked up to the execution pavilion—with the clatter of chains on their legs—is something I will never forget.
This was part of the “war on drugs” by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of suspected drug dealers.
Thaksin’s campaign was popular. Thais were concerned about the harmful effects of drugs like methamphetamines on their communities — and were willing to ignore the shocking human rights violations that came with violent repression.
Other countries in the region followed the same punitive approach, most notably the Philippines after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. Singapore and Malaysia have had the death penalty for drug trafficking for decades. Tourists arriving in Southeast Asia are warned of the harsh penalties they face if caught with even small amounts of marijuana.
It’s hard to believe, given all that, that what we’ve seen over the last few weeks is actually happening in Thailand.
Cafes and stalls openly sell all kinds of cannabis products and display pots of pot flowers. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul — the architect of the new law — was seen trying a typical dish with a marijuana-based spice and being cheered by farmers who hope it will bring them a new source of income.
At the same event, elderly Thai women had fun sampling marijuana drinks and lining up to get one of the millions of free marijuana plants the government is giving away.
The new law appears to give Thailand what is perhaps the most liberal approach to marijuana anywhere in the world. People can grow and consume as much of the plant as they want, although there are limits to marketing the product.
‘It’s like a dream’
“One thing is clear. You can no longer be arrested in Thailand just for using marijuana,” says Tom Kruesopon, a pioneering entrepreneur who helped persuade the government to change its approach. “You can go to jail for doing other things like smoking in public, for rioting or for growing and selling a cannabis product without approval from the Office of Food and Drugs. But Thailand is the first country in the world where you can’t go to jail for growing or consuming the plant.”
“This is like a dream for us. We never thought we’d make it this far in Thailand,” says Rattapon Sanrak, who began campaigning for marijuana legalization after experiencing its medical benefits while studying in the US.
Two grandparents, his father and mother died of cancer. Rushing back from the US to care for his mother, he unsuccessfully tried to convince her to use cannabis products to ease her pain, and was unable to gain access to substances that were considered illegal at the time.
What explains this dramatic turnaround in drug policy in a country led by the conservative military?
Part of the reason is partisan politics. Anutin made marijuana legalization his party’s main policy in the 2019 election. The party’s biggest constituency is in Thailand’s poor rural northeast, and the new drug policy has attracted farmers who make a hard living from growing rice and sugar, and they need a new kind of crop.
Anutin gave a speech earlier this month at his political base in the Buriram region in which he spoke about the new law and said he had delivered on what he had promised. He believes in the medical benefits of legalization, allowing poorer Thais to grow their own treatments rather than having to pay for expensive chemicals.
The change in drug policy is also related to the business world. Kruesopon estimates that the cannabis business will generate $10 billion in its first three years, not counting cannabis tourism, where people come to Thailand specifically for therapies and treatments using cannabis extracts.
Kruesopon opened the first clinic in Bangkok that focuses exclusively on this type of treatment. Some of Thailand’s biggest corporations are already looking for ways to cash in on the marijuana economy.
By liberalizing the law so quickly and completely, the government hopes to take the lead over its neighboring countries, many of which are still reluctant to follow the path paved by Thailand.
But there is a third factor behind the new marijuana policy: There has been reflection on the hard-line approach to drug use, which began seven years ago, at a time when Thailand was ruled by a military junta.
The country has some of the most overcrowded prisons in the world, and three-quarters of inmates are held for drug offences, many of them considered minor crimes. This not only brought international criticism of the poor conditions in which the prisoners live, it also cost the government money.
In 2016, a Minister of Military Justice, General Paiboon Kumchaya, announced that the war on drugs had failed and that another, less punitive method of dealing with narcotics abuse was needed.
When Anutin presented his marijuana policy, with all its enticing economic benefits, he found there was room for discussion — though he says it still took a lot of effort to move forward. Another consequence of the law change is that more than 4,000 people on cannabis-related charges are being released from prison.
The government was unprepared for the enthusiastic support its drug policy has received across Thailand since the new law was passed.
The plant now appears everywhere: in ice cream, adorning classic Thai dishes and in new smoothie recipes. There is even a sale of meat from chickens that would have been fed cannabis. The new law legalizes virtually everything related to cannabis.
The government is now drafting additional regulations on its use. Officially, their position is that the law only allows the use of cannabis for medical, not recreational, purposes, but it is difficult to understand how authorities will make that distinction.
“We all know from studying other markets that the real money is in recreational use,” says Chidchanok Chitchob, who calls himself a marijuana enthusiast. His father, a powerful political figure in Buriram, was one of the first to jump on the Thai marijuana bandwagon. “I think this is a good step in that direction, if we’re really thinking about it as a good product for the economy.”
She is experimenting with different varieties of the plant to help local farmers grow the right types for their region.
Kruesopon says he sees no problem with more regulation. He advocates the sale of marijuana only from licensed sellers, with a prescription, and never to anyone under the age of 18.
“You don’t have to think too much about these things. What already applies to cigarettes can be used for cannabis. There are already laws to help control the use of cigarettes and alcohol — just use the same laws.”
This is an unusual and bold step by the Thai government into a brave new world. The rest of the region is watching to see if legalization pays off.
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