BANGKOK, Thailand -- Two years after a military-led government decriminalized cannabis, Thailand's elected civilian prime minister announced he will end its recreational use in December, shut thousands of licensed weed shops, and punish anyone involved with marijuana unless for medical use.

The sudden reversal threatens the popularity of an already squabbling coalition government elected in May 2023 under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and his influential Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party.

They are staunchly anti-marijuana, but some powerful parties in the coalition favor regulated recreational use and production, similar to alcohol or tobacco, to boost Thailand's struggling economy.

Cannabis investors, farmers, sellers, and consumers expressed outrage and said if weed becomes illegal again, it would destroy Thailand's rapidly expanding, multi-million dollar cannabis industry which includes international tourists buying the most expensive buds.

Cannabis supporters held small rallies on May 16 at the Health Ministry, and tourist-packed Phuket island's Provincial Health Office, demanding Prime Minister Srettha's health minister prove recreational cannabis is worse for health compared to alcohol and tobacco.

The Cannabis Future Network said it will rally supporters to protest in front of the Health Ministry until that proof appears.

"Just search on the internet and you will find there has been no research which show cannabis has a serious negative impact on mental health," said Cannabis Future Network's secretary-general Prasitchai Nunual.

"On the other hand, there are countless studies which demonstrate the health benefits of cannabis, which are sufficient to conclude that cannabis plants have medicinal properties," Mr. Prasitchai said.

"The government has suddenly said that cannabis will be placed back in the narcotic list, making it illegal again and making millions of people criminals overnight," Assadet Nongsang, a pro-cannabis activist told The Phuket Express news.

For centuries, cannabis sativa has been considered a traditional medicine in Thailand.

After decriminalization, its properties are now taught in several universities' government-backed schools of traditional medicine.

Cannabis is currently not illegal for anyone over 18 years old and not pregnant, but smoking in public can result in a fine.

The previous military-led government's elected prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha -- who seized power in a 2014 coup -- removed cannabis from the Narcotics Code in 2021, ending the 1935 Cannabis Act ban.

The plant immediately became legal for medical use only, but in 2022 those restraints vanished, allowing recreational use.

Marijuana's undefined legal status means there are no fines or punishment for possession and use, while sales, production and other aspects are licensed.

Mr. Prayuth's then-health minister Anutin Charnvirakul told the public they could earn fortunes by growing marijuana at home or on farms instead of other crops, and he handed out live plants to eager recipients.

Mr. Anutin's push to legalize cannabis was a winning campaign for his Bhumjai Thai (Proud to be Thai) party in the 2019 election.

Mr. Anutin, now a powerful interior minister and a deputy prime minister in the coalition government, said an official study of cannabis was needed and panel discussions aired before changing marijuana's legal status.

Prime Minister Srettha's PTP and their supporters fear cannabis is distorting the minds of Thai teenagers who go online to score from farms which make deliveries.

Pro-cannabis campaigners meanwhile want regulations ensuring recreational weed is not contaminated with insecticide or mold.

Various coalition factions offered two draft bills to parliament where they languish, but the PTP wants a fresh draft to be agreed on by December.

"Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin may mean well in attempting to re-list cannabis as a narcotic, but his aim only attests to his mediocre knowledge about the plant and the dilemma facing the country," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.

"Allowing recreational use with proper regulations, while enacting measures to protect non-cannabis users in public places, can be acceptable," the paper said in an earlier editorial.

Prime Minister Srettha is widely considered a pliant proxy for the convicted, jailed, and currently paroled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin's administration unleashed a "war on drugs" in 2003 which killed more than 2,500 people in uninvestigated circumstances, and was one of the reasons cited by the coup leaders for toppling him in 2014.

Mr. Thaksin is helping Mr. Srettha and their PTP increase their power, but the party's anti-cannabis stance is up against others in their ruling coalition who allowed decriminalization.

The prime minister's demand that only medical cannabis be permitted, could spawn a corrupt system where licensed doctors easily issue prescriptions to virtually anyone willing to pay extra, critics said.

They also suspect Thailand's popular alcohol businesses are anti-cannabis because consumers may switch from drinking liquor to smoking weed.

Some critics liken Thailand's new anti-weed campaign to the 1930s U.S. film "Reefer Madness" and its exaggerations.

The lack of regulations meanwhile has created an uneven market for Thais trying to legally grow and sell marijuana, resulting in a current oversupply and low prices.

Marijuana with high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, which produces the drug's effect, sells for $2 to $25 per gram, often for the same strain and strength.

U.S. and other foreign investors have also been involved in opening legal shops with Thai partners, such as San Francisco-based Cookies' upmarket showroom on the lane behind the American Embassy.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978, and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondents' Award. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at