BlogThai government plans to scale back cannabis legalisation to medical-only

Thai government plans to scale back cannabis legalisation to medical-only

12 min read

Editorial Team

The Thai government has announced their intention to scale back cannabis legalisation in favour of regulations that support the use of cannabis as a medicine only. Newly elected Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party has announced his plan to implement these changes quickly within the next six months with the backing of his 11-party coalition government.

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The Pheu Thai Party led their campaign with an anti-cannabis message, making it a promise to reverse the law. The conservative-leaning party that previously led a drug war in the early 2000s has vowed to bring it back with a promise to implement changes to avoid its former flaws. Exactly how this will change the newly formed landscape that has appeared in such a short time remains to be seen, but a new law is in the drafting stages with hopes to curtail much of the current activity. 

When asked, "What would you do now?" by Bloomberg TV reporter Haslinda Amin, Thailand leader Srettha Thavisin interjected before she could finish, "It's just for medical reasons only. We need the law, and we need to rewrite [it]. We have agreement among all the relevant parties that this will be government policy because the problem about drugs has been widespread lately." In reply, the reporter asked, "Is there room for any middle ground, for leisure use?" the Prime Minister replied sharply, "No". 



How Thailand legalised cannabis

Thailand has a long ancestral relationship with cannabis, being just a stone's throw away from the cannabis birthplace, believed to be in the Hindu Kush mountain region. The word ganja is most commonly associated with the plant in the region, with its roots in Sanskrit, which influenced the Thai language. The word "bong" comes from the Thai word Buong, a cylindrical pipe. Thai cannabis, identifiable by the thin red and gold threads that bind it during transport and indicative of its quality, was once a global favourite in the 1960s counter-culture. 

Thailand originally banned cannabis in 1979 but became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise cannabis in June 2022 when former Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of the Bhumjaithai Party used medical cannabis legalisation as an election pledge in the lead-up to his 2019 election win. Their campaign logo was a cannabis plant with gold coins bursting out of it. He argued that medical cannabis provided affordable healthcare for people on low incomes. Upon legalisation, the government gave out 1 million cannabis plants to promote the law change. 

Chan-o-cha was regularly seen promoting cannabis businesses across Thailand between 2019 and 2022 with videos surfacing on X.com (formerly Twitter) of him dancing with his cabinet members when announcing they were getting their first batch of medical cannabis oil legally. The Thai Ministry of Public Health launched a medical cannabis app involving people of all ages in the celebration. The government agency created a mascot Dr. Ganja to help promote it, which can be bought as a stuffed toy. 

Removing all parts of the cannabis plant from Category 5 of the controlled narcotics list was a monumental 180-degree turn on their previous policy. Under the previous rules, people were frequently sent to prison for up to 15 years for cannabis possession and supply. On June 9, when the bill was enacted, the Department of Corrections began releasing the 4,000 plus prisoners locked up on cannabis charges, erasing the crimes from their records. Those pardoned could apply to have both money and cannabis confiscated by the state returned. 

It was estimated that the law had prevented thousands of, mostly young, people from getting a criminal record by giving them somewhere safe and legal to buy it from. Criminal records have lasting implications that can negatively impact a person's life, including exclusion from job opportunities and mental health problems. The law has also taken cannabis out of the same marketplace as other illicitly sold drugs, reducing the chances of vulnerable people being offered something more harmful. 

Eligibility for a medical cannabis prescription in Thailand requires a valid ID, a medical certificate showing what medical conditions they have, and the name and address of the medical professional who diagnosed the need for medical cannabis. 

Thailand residents can then register to grow cannabis and hemp for personal use with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the "Plook Ganja" app without paying a fee. Hemp can be grown on up to 5 rai (2 acres) of your land, but cannabis plants containing higher levels of THC (and likely to be grown indoors) are limited to 15 per household. 

Within the first four days of legalisation, 713,544 people were approved to grow cannabis after 735,932 registrations were made, with a further 22,388 certificates issued for growing hemp. In 2023, the number of registered home cultivators topped the million mark

There were few rules around the sale and consumption of cannabis when the government introduced the change in June 2022. Cannabis can not be bought by or sold to anyone under 20, and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers remain banned from buying or using it. 

Public consumption is also prohibited and can land people breaching this rule a 25,000 baht fine and up to 3 months in prison. Extracts containing over 0.2% THC remained prohibited under Category 5 of The Narcotics Act. Import and export restrictions still apply under international conventions. 

Traditional medical clinics and hospitals also prescribe cannabis for diagnosed conditions, which allows patients to carry a 90-day supply. Hospitals gave out the first prescriptions of cannabis oil in 2019.

The government grows their cannabis under the Government Pharmaceutical Organization. They run studies on their products and analyse other products on the market that they have found to be frequently contaminated. 

The grey area

Cannabis in Thailand had been predicted to become a billion-dollar industry by 2025 for the tourist-attracting country. The Chamber of Commerce has already indicated this has been surpassed, amounting to $1.2 billion this year. This achievement certainly seems possible, with nearly 12,000 registered cannabis dispensaries in Thailand popping up in under a year, a remarkable number in such a short time, casting a shadow over the 7,500 operating legally in the US. Residents can locate cannabis dispensaries through apps designed to help consumers find registered points of sale, but this is hardly necessary in urban settings. 

Until the Cannabis and Hemp Act is brought into play, a legal grey area has allowed people to sell high-THC cannabis without any real oversight to ensure sales are medical. Because the law states specifically that only extracts are restricted at 0.2% THC, the market for high-grade cannabis flowers has been left wide open. 

Cannabis entrepreneurs in Bangkok have taken full advantage of the situation, and some businesses selling cannabis products have said that up to 80% of their customers are tourists. Tourism has dwindled in Thailand since COVID and struggled to return to past numbers, but cannabis seems to have thrown a lifeline to the travel economy. For locals, the novelty of legalisation is starting to wear off with the realities setting in. Even though advertising is illegal, it has not stopped many dispensaries from promoting their products to passers-by with snazzy, attractive neon lights and modern marketing strategies. 

It has become clear that flagrant breaches of the law are becoming increasingly commonplace and openly promoted. Businesses advertising the sale of Californian and Canadian products as premium products are breaking import laws but are central to their brand. Restrictions to cannabis business ownership are designed to prevent foreign investors from owning more than 49% of a company. 

What are the concerns with the current cannabis policy?

Whilst the law initially intended to allow citizens to use cannabis for medical and culinary purposes, use and access have become widespread with little regulation amid concerns that problematic use has quadrupled. In the first five months of legalisation, the Ministry of Public Health recorded 72 cases of cannabis addiction per month, but this rose to 272 people seeking help each month from June to November. This figure is the highest in five years, creating a worry that there is added pressure being put on hospitals due to the way legalisation has been introduced. 

Products are mostly unregulated and untested and offer few consumer safety protections. Lack of labelling of how much THC is in any product, making sure they are free of potentially harmful contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides and moulds, fails to ensure consumers are kept safe. 

Images of children as young as 9 or 10 smoking cannabis have circulated Thai social media accounts, raising alarm for a quicker call to action. 

Under The Food Act, cannabis flowers are not permitted to be used in cooking preparations, but the sale of edibles is common. 

Foreign brokers are exploiting the law, and cheap imports have damaged the homegrown economy - one of the benefits voters were enticed to vote for in 2019. Imports have forced locally produced cannabis down. It was selling for 350-400,000 baht (£10-12,000) but now only sells for 200,000 (£5,800) since the market became flooded with exotic strains. 

Dispensary owners profess that tourists generally seek the highest quality and levels of THC, which trump caring about the cannabis origin. 

Craft-grown cannabis by local Thai growers in living soil organics is too expensive to produce when competing against the import market. The wholesale price for a gram of homegrown Thai cannabis is 300 baht (£6.75), but import can be as low as 150 baht (£3.30), which can then sell for 900 baht (£20) if it is over 21% THC. 

The people intended to benefit from the law change are increasingly losing out. Before the recent election, then Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who helped lead the decriminalisation effort, stated that this kind of law breach needs to be stopped. 

Foreign investors own many businesses operating in breach of rules. They state companies selling cannabis must be two-thirds owned by Thai people, and the foreign investor must have £2.2 million in capital. At the same time, the enforcement is targeting low-level street stalls that make very little impact on the market, and taking them out of action only serves to benefit the big players operating illegally in plain sight. 

What changes are likely to happen?

Due to the obvious issues above, many Thai farmers welcome new regulatory oversight - as long as it helps improve the system. There are, however, fears that the regulations will go too far and hinder the progress that many advocates of the new law benefit from. 

A new Cannabis-Hemp Act is being drafted. The new Act will control the production, use, and sale of cannabis plants and outline the necessary authorisations that businesses must work to. It will also outline what sanctions recreational use and those breaching other regulations receive. The Act was supposed to be introduced on June 9 2022, but the political process has delayed its procession due to conservative politicians believing it does not go far enough to curb recreational use. With a new incumbent focused on rectifying the policy, it seems likely that change is around the corner. 

Licence holders are expected to pay the FDA 50,000 baht for a three-year permit to grow cannabis, and the same again if extraction is the end goal. Sales licences will cost 5,000 baht, as will import and export licences, which will be granted for the first time. Operating without a licence will be deemed a serious offence, receiving a three-year prison sentence and up to a 300,000 baht fine. These details are provisional and yet to be finalised. 

Can I travel to Thailand with my Releaf prescription?

You are in luck! Travelling to Thailand with a prescription written by a Releaf specialist doctor is, currently, likely to be possible. Your prescription is valid in many countries around the world due to international medical conventions (although there are a few countries in the area we would recommend you avoid going to). 

You must carry a copy of your prescription (FP10) and a travel document, which you can ask the Patient Support Team for prior to your travel (please give two weeks' notice or as much as possible if it is an emergency trip). 

You should show customs agents your prescription and travel document to get approval and avoid prosecution. They will require you to fill out a form declaring how much cannabis you have in your possession. They want to see your passport and return your airline ticket to see if you are leaving the country. It is advised these forms are not available in English yet, and there is no intention for them to be - one way around this is to use Google Lens to translate the form as you are looking at it. 

If you require more information, two Thai helplines are dedicated to medical cannabis queries. The FDA has an option for English speakers and can be reached at 1556, Ext. 3. The Narcotics Control Board is contactable for other issues at 1386, Ext. 3. Both lines operate 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on regular government work days.

Our aim is to provide you with relevant information to help you to make better-informed decisions when travelling with your prescribed medical cannabis, but we cannot provide any guarantees, conditions or warranties as to the accuracy of the information in this article. It is a general guide only and not a substitute for obtaining your own legal travel advice.

Check out Releafs cannabis travel education, and if you are interested in finding out if you qualify for a medical cannabis prescription in the UK, get in touch with our Patient Support team.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Authors

Editorial Team

Article written by the Releaf Editorial Team, a group of seasoned experts in cannabis healthcare, dedicated to enhancing awareness and accessibility in the field through their wealth of knowledge and experience.

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Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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