After election, Thai cannabis ready to roll with the changes

Our future artificial overlords did a splendid job rendering “Thai farmer smiles beside his abundant cannabis crop.” But it failed to render “Anutin smiles down from heaven.” Image: Midjourney
Our future artificial overlords did a splendid job rendering “Thai farmer smiles beside his abundant cannabis crop.” But it failed to render “Anutin smiles down from heaven.” Image: Midjourney

Is the sky falling on Thailand’s nascent cannabis industry? Not according to some of its biggest players. 

After the votes were counted Sunday, cannabis entrepreneurs were even more confident that the future of weed is green, with most saying the outcome gave them more confidence that much-needed regulation will be rational and reasonable under a Move Forward-led coalition government.

“We’re super thrilled,” said Benjamin Baskins, CEO of OG Canna Co., Panthera Group’s cannabis arm that has sunk big money into large and colorful flagship stores across Bangkok and Thailand. “Everything that they stand for is for a new Thailand. We think they’re going to make the right choices for medical cannabis. It’s good for health; it’s good for the economy.” 

Going into Sunday’s election, in which progressive upstarts trounced both the odds-on opposition favorite and military proxies, most parties had taken aim at the backdoor decriminalization of weed orchestrated by ruling coalition member Bhumjaithai. But it turned out that voters were more enthusiastic about ousting the military and putting the country back on the right track than re-criminalizing cannabis.

If you can’t take political messaging at face value, that is doubly true for electoral politics, when opposition forces will seize any opportunity to bloody the nose of the powers that be.

“That is Politics 101,” said Arun Avery of longtime cannabis advocacy organization Highland. “They can’t have a new law get passed by a new party on a new radical action. That would just give them too much credit.”

That’s why the shrillest demands for a return to weed prohibition were disingenuous at best, Arun added. That and the fact they’re all getting their beaks wet.

“Each [party] either have their pockets or their relatives’ pockets too deep into cannabis investments to pull the plug,” he said.

More than just alienate swathes of the public, slamming the door shut on cannabis would destroy the lives of thousands of farmers, infuriate investors, leave Bangkok littered with boarded up storefronts, and precipitate countless legal battles.

The Next Weed New Normal

But while seasoned observers dismissed the hot anti-cannabis rhetoric as electioneering, they do expect a readjustment to come no soon than later this year, after a new government is seated – a process that will take months, at best.

That’s what makes Baskins’ stress on the word “medical” notable.

One outcome all those interviewed agreed was likely was bringing the weed reality in line with the original rhetoric of medical intentions. That could look like pre-2013 California, when only medical marijuana was allowed, at least nominally. During those two decades, obtaining cannabis required only a card sold for US$15 at the many shops which proliferated.

That’s why, after opening its stores and launching half a dozen brands from Cloud Nine to Kush House, OG Canna Co. is plowing ahead with deeper investments. 

Up next is its first “clinic” located next to Wonderland, one of its colorful fantasy weed shops at Soi Sukhumvit 5.

Baskins says they’re doing it to further their mission of providing quality medical cannabis services, but he also admits it could help future-proof their operations, should Thailand go medical.

“We just want to tick every box. You can sell CBD oil, but when you start these real serious topics about epilepsy, cancer … we want to do that from a clinic. And what better place to do it than in lower Sukhumvit, where the world passes by,” said the always on-message former Panthera chief marketer.

Baskins concedes it’s also a pragmatic move to survive any legal course corrections, such as a more stringently, all-medical paradigm. He noted that Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat  did not say that cannabis should be returned to Class 5 narcotic status, just that it should be controlled.

He said that going medical could also see a reversal of what’s allowed by banning buds and permitting wider use of secondary products such as edibles and oils, which pass the “therapeutic” smell test better than clouds of bong smoke. He’s also gamed out a scenario in which cannabis is only available to tourists.

For now, the election gave him confidence that coming regulations will be based on data rather than emotion. 

“I believe public opinion is going to drive the future direction of the government and their choices,” he said. “I really truly believe that Move Forward, they’re going to proceed in a well-thought-out and researched way.”  

That’s if Move Forward, or Kao Klai as it’s known in Thai, can build a large enough coalition to overcome the rules rigged in favor of military rule. 

Poonwarit Wangpatravanich, president of the Phuket Cannabis Association, said the real threat to the nascent industry is the glut of cheap foreign weed being illegally imported and dumped on the market.

That’s why he wants a new government seated to act quickly on introducing regulations. Whoever prevails in that game is an academic question when it comes to weed’s future, he said. 

He said it will survive under either new progressive leadership or the old-guard status quo that engineered its decriminalization in the first place, on behalf of critical power partner Bhumjaithai.

“One side is Kao Klai, the other side would be the military parties with Bhumjaithai. I think whoever got elected to be the government, cannabis will still move forward. For Kao Klai, you can see they aren’t really into criminalizing cannabis, they want it more regulated. Not a free-for-all.”

And of course there is the Bhumjaithai factor. The mid-sized rural party has played kingmaker for two decades as its votes have proven essential to assembling ruling coalitions. This power has been parlayed into world-class football stadiums (2011), Formula 1 racing circuits (2014), and weed (2022) for its powerbase in the eastern province of Buriram.

It placed third on Sunday with 70 seats that would put Move Forward over the top, which would likely temper any weed rollback ambitions. Although Bhumjaithai historically prized pragmatism for power over ideology – it was born in the noughties from the populist movement of Thaksin Shinawatra – some believe it has been in bed with the conservative wing too long to accommodate some of Move Forward’s policies; namely, abolishing the royal insult law of Section 112.

Nonetheless, Poonwarit’s Phuket Cannabis Association has tempered its own optimism by collecting signatures – about 2,300 so far – for a petition addressed to the public health minister – currently Bhumjaithai head Anutin Charnvirakul – against returning cannabis to the criminal before-times.

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