Apec host Thailand's budding marijuana industry faces backlash
Close to the grand conference centre in Bangkok where world leaders are meeting this week, a plethora of marijuana shops – the Thai capital's latest tourist draw – are bustling despite a controversy that threatens the growing sector.
Shops selling homegrown and imported strains, pre-rolled joints and gummies have sprung up rapidly since Thailand decriminalised cannabis earlier this year.
New cafes with names like MagicLeaf and High Society are located just minutes from the meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.
But the proliferation of such businesses has sparked a backlash from politicians and doctors, who say legalisation was pushed through in a regulatory vacuum and are now calling for tougher rules or even a return to prohibition.
A cannabis regulation bill governing cultivation, sale, and consumption has been delayed in Parliament, causing confusion over what aspects of the herb will be legal.
"We’re in a vacuum," one senator, Somchai Sawangkarn, told a domestic broadcaster on Wednesday, adding that rules issued by the Health Ministry had not curbed recreational use.
Southeast Asia has strict laws prohibiting the sale and use of most drugs, but Thailand became a major exception in June, when it dropped cannabis from its list of narcotics.
The move was spearheaded by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who framed marijuana as a cash crop for farmers and championed its medical use. Instead, recreational use exploded.
Authorities then rushed through piecemeal updates to regulations, clarifying that cannabis could not be sold to children or near schools and temples.
Netnapa Singathit opened a smoking room for a short while at her RG420 cannabis store in central Bangkok, but she switched to serving drinks after authorities banned such facilities.
She called for regulation that standardises quality, adding: "We are concerned about operators who are not compliant, and customers end up with bad products."
Recent weeks have brought a wave of news reports about hospitalisations and weed use by children.
The chief of Thailand's association of forensic physicians, Smith Srisont, asked a court last week to relist cannabis as a narcotic.
"It was wrong to not have governing laws before unlocking cannabis ... it is not being used medically, but recreationally," he told reporters.
Yet with major profits to be had, many business owners are relaxed about coming changes. Anutin has ruled out recriminalisation, but supports greater regulation.
Akira Wongwan, the chief executive of medical cannabis business Adam Group, said profit margins for recreational cannabis were "super high".
The sector could be worth $1.2 billion by 2025, estimates the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
"Most people still think at least they can get the profits now, even if regulations change," said Akira.