APEC host Thailand’s budding marijuana industry faces backlash

A person enters a cannabis shop near the venue of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, Thailand November 17, 2022. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Near the grand conference halls in central Bangkok where Asian leaders will meet this week, a plethora of marijuana shops – the Thai capital’s newest tourist draw – were bustling despite a controversy that threatens the growing sector.

Since Thailand decriminalised cannabis this year shops selling homegrown and imported strains, pre-rolled joints and gummies sprang up rapidly.

New cafes with names such as MagicLeaf and High Society are located just minutes from the meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

But the proliferation of such businesses has sparked a backlash from some politicians and doctors who say the change was pushed through without regulation and are now calling for tougher rules, or even a new ban.

A cannabis regulation bill to govern cultivation, sale, and consumption has been delayed in parliament, causing confusion over just aspects will be legal.

“We’re in a vacuum,” one senator, Somchai Sawangkarn, told a domestic broadcaster on Wednesday, adding that announcements by the health ministry had not curbed recreational use.

Southeast Asia has strict laws prohibiting the sale and use of most drugs, but Thailand became a major exception in June, when it dropped cannabis from its list of narcotics.

The move was spearheaded by health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who framed marijuana as a cash crop for farmers and championed its medical use, but recreational use exploded.

Authorities later rushed through piecemeal updates to the regulation clarifying that cannabis could not be sold to children or near schools and temples.

‘SUPER HIGH’ PROFITS

Netnapa Singathit had a smoking room for a short while after opening her RG420 cannabis store in central Bangkok, but she switched to serving drinks after authorities banned such rooms.

She called for regulation that standardises quality, adding, “We are concerned about operators who are not compliant, and customers end up with bad products.”

Recent weeks have brought a wave of news reports about hospitalisations and use by children.

The president of Thailand’s association of forensic physicians, Smith Srisont, petitioned a court last week to re-list it as a narcotic.

“It was wrong to not have governing laws before unlocking cannabis … it is not being used medically, but recreationally,” he told reporters.

Yet with major profits to be had, many business owners are relaxed about coming changes. Anutin has ruled out recriminalisation, but supports greater regulation.

Akira Wongwan, the chief executive of a medical cannabis business, Adam Group, said profit margins for recreational cannabis were “super high”.

The sector could be worth $1.2 billion by 2025, the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce has estimated.

“Most people still think at least they can get the profits now, even if regulations change,” said Akira.

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