Opinion: Anutin, Marijuana, and Thai Politics

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul reacts during news conference Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, at the Public Health Ministry in Nonthaburi, Thailand, after signing a measure that drops cannabis from his ministry's list of controlled drugs. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul reacts during news conference Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, at the Public Health Ministry in Nonthaburi, Thailand, after signing a measure that drops cannabis from his ministry's list of controlled drugs. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

The future of the de facto use of marijuana for recreational purposes, a by-product of the decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes, is now hanging in the balance.

The man behind the decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes in Thailand, public health minister Anutin Charnveerakul, vows to fight tooth and nail and urges voters to give him a new mandate to see things through in the next general election. Anutin’s reaction came after coalition-partner Democrat Party succeeded on Tuesday evening to stall the draft Marijuana Bill after launching a motion to vote to withdraw the draft bill for a revision.

This means there is a real possibility that the draft marijuana bill will now be deferred until after the general election early next year. All this while there is a legal vacuum where the use of marijuana for recreational purposes is spreading since the government decriminalized it back in early June.

That uncertainty beside, which will probably be decided by voters, some foreigners were surprised that the move to decriminalized marijuana was spearheaded by the Anutin’s Bhumjai Thai Party, which is supposedly a conservative party while those opposing it includes the supposedly pro-democracy and liberal parties like the Pheu Thai and Move Forward Party, are against the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Does it make sense?

Well, it is perplexing on the surface, but one explanation could be that Thai politicians are mostly driven by pragmatism, and not an ideology. Well, I stand correctly, pragmatism is an ideology too, isn’t it? If pushing for the decriminalization of cannabis for medical purposes and beyond can get you elected as public health minister, as deputy premier, then maybe as PM after the next election then why not?

Many Thai politicians, times and again, have proven themselves able to work and serve with whoever is in power, through a coup or election – it does not matter to them really, as long as they can have a share of the cake and hold a cabinet post.

Some say Thailand does not have a true socialist political party and what we believe to be progressive parties are merely parties against military rule or right to center parties. Compared to the West, these supposedly progressive parties may in fact even be conservative. This explains why some politicians and parties are now making noise against the de facto decriminalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

Or maybe it is also because Anutin is getting too popular with all the voters and recognition from villagers, farmers, smokers, cannabis vendors, universities, and pharmaceutical companies that have a hand in both the use of marijuana for medical as well as recreational purposes.

Thus, they who cannot let Anutin win all the votes and become the next PM, you must villainize him even if in private you may feel the urge to enjoy a joint or two. Anutin has become too popular and he has to be destroyed, so his rivals think. One foreign correspondent told me earlier this week after recently following the minister to Buriram province in the northeast, the heartland of the Bhumjai Thai Party, that Anutin was “mobbed like a rockstar.”

Well, many foreign expats also swear Anutin is the man because he has at least, at the time of writing, managed to make smoking pot legal – the first in Asia. It is too bad they cannot vote for the man but Anutin and the debate about whether to allow Bangkok and the rest of Thailand to be like Amsterdam or not will definitely be a contentious topic in the upcoming general election.

And if anything, for many politicians, it may not be about principle but competition for political power.