UPDATE: Thailand Moves to Decriminalize Cannabis, Setting Bar in Asia
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UPDATE: Thailand Moves to Decriminalize Cannabis, Setting Bar in Asia

The country of roughly 70 million could influence reform amongst its Southeast Asia neighbors.

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February 8, 2022

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Jan. 25 and has been updated to reflect the health minister’s signed approval to drop cannabis from a list of controlled drugs.

Thailand took a giant step Jan. 25 toward becoming the first country in Asia to decriminalize cannabis, potentially opening the door for home grows and adult use.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul announced that Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board approved dropping cannabis from the ministry’s list of controlled drugs, setting up the de facto decriminalization of cannabis in the country, The Associated Press reported.

Charnvirakul officially signed the delisting of cannabis by the ministry’s Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 8. Now, the signed measure needs to be published in the Royal Thai Government Gazette—the public newspaper of record of Thailand—for 120 days before taking effect, according to the AP.

The removal of cannabis from the country’s controlled drugs list means all parts of the plant are allowed to be used. However, extracted content greater than 0.2% THC will remain illegal.

Charnvirakul said he hoped his signed approval would not only pave way for medicinal cannabis use through an industry built around derived products, but that it would help remove the stigma surrounding cannabis, the AP reported.

“Cannabis actually has plenty of medical benefits, not different from other herbs, and we are trying our best to make the Thai people enjoy both medical and economic benefits from it,” he said Feb. 8.

The decriminalization effort comes on the heels of the Thailand government amending it drugs laws last year to reduce the number of people in prison.

Southeast Asia has some of the world’s toughest penalties for drug usage and possession, and Thailand has the largest prison population among the 10 member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with more than 80% of people in prison held for drug offenses, according to the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether those who possess cannabis in Thailand would still be subject to arrest under the current decriminalization push. Adult-use cannabis remains illegal, and, during the next 120 days, the ministry will seek to have a bill on cannabis approved by Thailand’s parliament to clarify several legal points, the AP reported.

In the U.S., decriminalization generally means small, personal consumption amounts of cannabis are a civil or local infraction, not a state crime, or are a lowest misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a non-partisan public officials association that fosters interstate cooperation and facilitates the exchange of information among state legislatures.

In Thailand, “A tangle of related laws means that production and possession of marijuana remains regulated for the time being, leaving the legal status of recreational marijuana use in a [gray] area,” the AP reported.

Thailand’s parliament voted to legalize cannabis for medical use in late-2018, and then became the first Asian nation to decriminalize the production and use of medical cannabis in 2020. Included in that reform, most parts of the cannabis plant were dropped from the country’s Category V list of controlled drugs, with the exception of flower and seeds (differentiating that effort from the current effort).

The personal use of Category V substances (e.g., heroin, opium, methamphetamine, cocaine) is liable for a term of imprisonment not exceeding one year, while possession of “small amounts” for personal use of Category V substances is liable for a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, under Thailand’s 2021 drug law reform, according to IDPC.

The 2022 decriminalization signed by Charnvirakul removes all parts of the cannabis plant (flower and seeds included) from the Category V list of controlled drugs.

Charnvirakul, who also serves as Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister, campaigned on legalizing cannabis production to aid farmers during his 2019 election run, and since has been a driving force behind decriminalizing cannabis, according to the AP.

The Bhumjai Thai Party, which Charnvirakul leads, is expected to lead legislation to clarify the legal status of cannabis.