Thai Plan to Curb Cannabis Use Triggered by Medical-Costs Jump

(Bloomberg) -- A near six-fold jump in costs of cannabis for medical purposes triggered the need to restrict consumption of the herb, according to Thailand’s Health Ministry.

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Total medical expenditure for illnesses treated with cannabis jumped to between 15 billion baht ($407 million) and 21 billion baht after the government decriminalized its use two years ago, Health Minister Somsak Thepsutin said in a statement on Saturday. That compared with just 3.2 billion baht to 3.8 billion spent in treatment costs between 2019 and 2021, he said, citing an academic study.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is seeking to reverse the country’s landmark cannabis policy by reclassifying the plant as a narcotic and limit its use to medical and health purposes. The Health Ministry plans to brand cannabis as a “category five” narcotic again, which will make it a crime to possess and consume the herb.

The use of cannabis for recreational purposes has been found to damage brain development and lead to depression and suicide, according to Somsak. About 40% of young Thais, who have heroin addictions, originally used cannabis, he said.

Liberal use of cannabis became a hot-button political issue ahead of Thailand’s national election last year. Srettha’s Pheu Thai Party promoted a hard-line anti-drug campaign ahead of the election and pledged to eradicate drugs from Thai society.

Earlier this week, the premier set a 90-day deadline for law enforcement and local authorities to crack down on drugs in 25 provinces considered as “red zones.”

A bill seeking to outlaw recreational use, tighten licensing rules on planting, sales, exports and imports of cannabis was delayed owing to lengthy bureaucratic process, even as opposition from industry groups mounted. Former prime minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s administration had decriminalized cannabis in 2022 to free up the plant for medicinal use and as a cash crop.

Almost 8,000 dispensaries and a large number of consumer-agro firms have cropped up across Thailand since, selling everything from cannabis buds to oil extracts and weed-infused candy to baked goods. Under current decriminalization laws, cannabis products must not contain more than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive compound that provides a “high” sensation — to be considered legal.

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