Thailand breaks with Southeast Asia’s brutal drug policy

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This article is published together with our partner 9DASHLINE.

In a region characterized by one of the most brutal drug policies in the world, it was amazing to see Thailand become the first country in Asia to legalize cannabis. Until recently, Thailand had one of the largest prison populations in Southeast Asia and one of the highest female incarceration rates in the world, with most inmates convicted of drug-related offenses. It also imposes the death penalty for certain drug-related offenses (although it has not had an execution for a drug-related offense in over 10 years), has waged an anti-drug campaign that enabled the extrajudicial killing of at least 2,400 people in 2003, arbitrarily Thousands of people locked up in drug detention centers in the name of drug rehabilitation.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, drug policies are no less harsh. So far this year, four men have been hanged for drug trafficking offenses in Singapore. Thousands of people have been extrajudicially killed by police in the Philippines since 2016, and even larger numbers are being arbitrarily arrested and held in prisons and forced rehabilitation programs. Over-investment in law enforcement and criminal justice systems to enforce the wide range of punishment imposed by drug laws in the region has left social and health agencies unable to respond to truly health-principled anti-drug, harm reduction and anti-drug responses Development.

These effects are widely visible in Thailand, but in 2021 several drug policy reforms came into effect, beginning with the legalization of kratom (a plant native to Southeast Asia and commonly used in some rural communities in Thailand as a mild stimulant to treat fatigue). , followed by the introduction of the Narcotics Act (which included reduced sentences and revised sentencing rules to reduce incarceration rates and allow for a health response to drug use) and the continued legalization of cannabis in 2022.

Uncertainties remain on Thailand’s path to regulating cannabis

On June 9, 2022, people lined up to make their first legal cannabis purchases. Every part of the plant has been removed from the controlled substances list under Thailand’s drug laws. Under these laws, activities related to cannabis – from use to distribution to import/export – have previously been punishable by fines, imprisonment and even the death penalty. Now only cannabis extracts that exceed 0.2 percent THC (the psychoactive component of the drug) are illegal, which seems to refer mostly to cannabis oil.

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Curiously, detailed regulations on the definition of “extracts” and the use, sale and cultivation of cannabis have yet to be published (although they are expected in September 2022). This has created a temporary gray area where, apart from a few rules (e.g. preventing public nuisance and prohibiting sales to those under the age of 20 and pregnant women) there are virtually no restrictions on the cannabis products currently available and widely purchasable to acquire. Mobile vans stop in areas of concentrated tourist traffic and offer either pre-rolled joints or a menu of different cannabis strains to choose from to roll your own joint. The government has even started giving away one million cannabis plants to households, as people are now allowed to grow an unlimited number of plants at home for their own use.

While statements from the Thai government insist that cannabis has been legalized for medical use, they remain vague on the extent to which non-medical use is permitted. In practice, it is now possible to buy and sell cannabis buds and flowers of any THC content without a doctor’s prescription. Of course, if people are allowed to grow their own cannabis, it also follows that they can use it as they please, for medical or non-medical purposes, without the need for a prescription. In reality, the distinction between medical and non-medical uses of cannabis can be blurred – although the WHO-recommended THC threshold of 0.2 percent for distinguishing cannabis for medical purposes is an important benchmark under the international drug control treaty.

In fact, long before the international drug control treaties were signed (1961, 1971 and 1988), cannabis was part of Thailand’s traditional medicinal, spiritual and culinary practices – as it was in many other parts of the world. After decades of ban (under pressure from countries like the US), it’s heartening to see Thailand reclaiming its culture and traditions. Legalizing cannabis was championed by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who made it his key pledge during the 2019 election campaign. Since then, he has repeatedly cited the dual benefits of improved access to medical care and economic growth as the main goal of the reforms.

However, there are some problems arising from the rushed nature of the reforms. For example, the reforms were passed without substantive public consultations where the voices of people using cannabis or farmers wishing to enter the new cannabis market could have been heard. Additionally, people using cannabis for medicinal purposes have found government-supplied products to be ineffective and have turned to the black market to meet their treatment needs. Small farmers find the bureaucratic hurdles and costs of commercial production too high and doubt that they can compete with larger corporations. As a result, a group of proponents have tabled a people’s bill to push for a decentralized regime that would allow market participation for a wide range of local farmers and other actors in the supply chain. With the newly discovered availability of legal cannabis, there is also an urgent need for education and advice to promote the safe and responsible use and cultivation of cannabis.

The significant impact of changes in pharmaceutical legislation

It is important to note that at every step in Thailand’s drug law reform since 2021, those deemed eligible have been released from prison. Over 10,000 people convicted of kratom-related offenses and over 3,000 people convicted of cannabis-related offenses have been released from prison and their convictions overturned. Many others convicted of other crimes that could not be released also had their kratom and cannabis-related convictions overturned. People in prison have been encouraged to seek a review of their sentences after the Narcotics Act came into force, which could result in a reduced sentence and make them eligible for immediate release.

Unlike the cannabis reforms, the legalization of kratom and the passage of the Narcotics Act came after a lengthy scrutiny process led primarily by the Justice Department. The road to reform was vastly different from that of cannabis – not to mention overshadowed by cannabis reforms. In a region still marked by extremely cruel and inhumane responses to drug-related activities, the reforms to Thailand’s criminal justice, healthcare and economic systems resulting from the series of drug law changes are a welcome change. Hopefully they will the changes become a role model for Thailand’s neighbors. But for now, uncertainties and concerns remain about the future form of these reforms.

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