The decriminalization of marijuana which took effect on Thursday, the first in Asia, poses both opportunities and challenges to Thai society.
The positive impact is plain for everyone to see: income generated by growing, selling, and exporting marijuana and its related-products for medical and gastronomic purposes. Without doubt, large companies are well-prepared to exploit the new reality and it is a challenge to make sure that it would not just benefit the billionaires and that ordinary farmers and household growers get a fair dividend as well.
It is also good that some three thousand inmates are being released for their needless crimes of possessing or selling cannabis. This has a slight effect to lessen the already overcrowded prison system in Thailand. Also, many sick people who are in pain will have access to alternative herbal painkillers and sleep pills.
The other major challenge is how to ensure that the decriminalization of the growing and selling of marijuana for medical purposes does not lead to widespread substance abuse and addiction, particularly among the youth. Only someone high or naïve would believe that when the government says it is only for “medical purposes,” it will stay that way.
I saw the lack of any regulation and blatant mockery of the notion of cannabis for “medical purposes” on Khao San Road Saturday night, where many locals and foreign tourists queue up to buy cannabis in a free for all atmospheres. None looked sick to me.
Well, it is not exactly free at 700 baht per gram, twice the price of weed in Amsterdam. A 20-year-old Briton from Bristol, Tycjan Gapski, was the first customer of the day, and that evening there were over a hundred buying the stuff which was illegal just half a week ago. Gapski told me Bangkok is becoming the New Amsterdam. (But then I quietly thought that was the old name of New York.)
“Everyone get the f*ck down here because this is gonna be madness,” Gapski told me after he bought a gram.
The price of legal marijuana flowers peddled by the weed truck on Khao San Road may be twice that of Amsterdam at 700 baht per gram but the huge potential for a new type of de facto “recreational tourism” is plain for all to see and smell. The price will likely drop as more are planting. The challenge is how to properly regulate them to mitigate unwanted repercussions.
With more than 6 million marijuana plants to be cultivated, according to Public Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul, the man who successfully pushed for the policy, there should be little doubt of the trickle-down effect that would lead to the use of marijuana for recreational purposes.
The Ministry of Agriculture has also announced it will give away a million marijuana saplings, while over 580,000 people have registered with the government to grow cannabis and over thirty million Thais accessed the government cannabis app as of Saturday.
I am not alone cooking this up or fearing alone. On Friday, the dean of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, Chanchai Sittipunt, expressed concerns that some will simply claim that they have headache or severe pain, in fact they just wanna have a Thai stick to get high.
Anutin also admitted on Friday that some will probably get high all day and “kept smiling” and urged public health volunteers throughout the kingdom to be vigilant. Some even accused the government of trying to ‘drugged’ its own people so they can rule the country however they like. (Back in the 1970s and 80s, booze and cigarettes were so cheap in the Philippines under Marcos dictatorship one wonders if it is a way to keep people content and blurry, a form of state-induced escapism.)
Well, nothing really wrong with people enjoying a stick or two once in a while I would say – even if that is the grey area of the law. The concern is how to prevent it from not becoming so widespread and excessive to the point where a significant percentage of the Thai population, particularly young Thais become dependent on cannabis and addicted. If not handled properly, many Thais will simply vacate to the alternative high universe.
We have seen alcohol abuse, addiction to cigarettes, and now welcome to the world of pot. Moderation and responsible consumption are crucial and the months ahead will be a litmus test of Thailand’s ability to handle cannabis responsibly.
Already, the Royal College of Pediatricians also warned on Friday in a letter that recreational use of marijuana, as well as consuming food with cannabis leaves, among those under the age of 20 will have a lasting impact on user’s brain development. They too are not buying into the belief that given the new reality, people will only use it for medical purposes only. In another development, a joint letter penned by 21 experts expressed concerns about de facto policy vacuum.
If you are not worried about the health effects on those younger than 20 or that the teenager or adult next door will be high all day, you should be concerned about the possible repercussions of traffic accidents. Drunk, sleepy, or reckless drivers are deadly enough, now we will most likely have to deal with ‘high’ drivers.
It is all about responsible use and management and we will see in the weeks ahead how Thai society is fairing. I do not want to be pessimistic, and generally support decriminalization, but I am not high and see things in pink either. We need contingency plans to deal with the possible adverse effects of this brave new world.