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Thailand bans cannabis use in policy reversal

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Thailand looks set to clamp down on the recreational use of marijuana, this just 18 months after it was decriminalized. The country's health minister is set to present a new bill this week. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

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MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm standing on Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road near the Asok Metro station. It's a tourist-friendly neighborhood where cannabis dispensaries and mobile vans sprouted like, well, weeds after it was decriminalized in June 2022. There's at least seven stores within a few hundred meters of me, and there's over a thousand stores which have opened in other parts of the city, businesses that could be facing an uncertain future if the new law passes. This wasn't what the government had in mind when it decriminalized cannabis. The idea was to help Thailand tap into the multibillion-dollar medical marijuana business worldwide and provide poor Thai farmers a more lucrative alternative to planting rice or rubber. But that decision was rushed, the rules unclear and the loopholes many. And suddenly, it seemed you could smell weed being smoked everywhere. A backlash was inevitable.

CHOKWAN KITTY CHOPAKA: Don't forget we are still a very conservative country.

SULLIVAN: Chokwan Kitty Chopaka is a Thai cannabis rights activist and entrepreneur.

CHOPAKA: You can go ask any Thai on the side of the road, going like, what do you think about medical cannabis? Everyone will go, this is great, fully support it. But then if you go into - what about sales, what about recreational use? There's still a - we're not so sure.

SULLIVAN: The country's new prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, is sure. And the new bill is an effort to make good on a campaign pledge to snuff out recreational use altogether, which he made clear in an interview with Bloomberg TV shortly after taking office.

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PRIME MINISTER SRETTHA THAVISIN: It's just for medical reason. We need - the law we need to be rewrite. We have agreement among all the 11 parties that this will be this government policy because the problem about drugs has been widespread lately.

SULLIVAN: But with thousands of licensed shops and growers all over the country in an industry that's already attracted serious investors, one analysts predict could be worth billions in just a few years, can the government really put the genie back in the bottle?

CHOPAKA: No, I don't think they can.

SULLIVAN: Chokwan Kitty Chopaka.

CHOPAKA: I just don't see it happening. Overall, it is kind of to save face, and then hopefully, the press no longer talks about it. Technically, recreational use and sale is already banned. They're just enforcing that ban with penalties.

SULLIVAN: Stiff penalties, including a 60,000-baht fine, about $1,700 for smoking recreationally, even at home, though selling the plant or its extracts for recreational use could face a 100,000-baht fine, a year in jail or both. But she expects the impact of the new rules to be minimal.

CHOPAKA: There will be some store that will close down because they are only making money out of things that they are not allowed to sell in the first place - joints, edibles, extract. So they may shut down, which then may be better business for us that are left because we don't have any of those products.

SULLIVAN: But she does have buds, flowers, and she reckons she and everyone else with a license will still be able to sell them, even if the new bill passes.

CHOPAKA: You'll still be able to buy flowers, but you'll probably have to really show ID this time. Or like, you know, there's probably a little bit less stuff that you'll get to see on the shelf, like equipments and whatnot, because they can consider that as part of recreational.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have a good day. Bye-bye. Have a good day. Oh, sorry. Bye-bye.

SULLIVAN: At her tiny shop near Asok, there's a steady stream of customers by late morning. One of her regulars is a man named Robert, who says he's been here for 20 years and preferred not to give his last name, given Thailand's drug policies in the past.

ROBERT: I've lived here through, you know, the harshest of times, where you could do five years in prison for having some marijuana. So the whole paranoia that used to exist around purchasing and smoking weed here was pretty serious. So yeah, I think they should not go back to how things were before.

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SULLIVAN: Down the road at Sukhumweed, one of the first dispensaries to open after decriminalization, owner Soranut Masayavanich isn't too worried either. But if the new restrictions get too onerous, he says, he's ready for that, too.

SORANUT MASAYAVANICH: I just sell weed underground. I can go sell it underground again. I don't care. I make more money underground anyway (laughter).

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF JORJA SMITH SONG, "GREATEST GIFT (FT. LILA IKE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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