Editorial: Thai Health Minister Change Could Have Major Ramifications for Cannabis Legalisation in Thailand


After weeks of speculation and at times outright denials, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has finally made changes to his Thai cabinet as of yesterday, April 28th, 2024.

Before I begin, it’s best if you aren’t already to be aware of the changes from our prior article HERE.

There is plenty to talk about but we are only going to focus on one change for this editorial and that is the removal of Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew and his replacement, former Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin.

Cholnan had been, regardless if he wanted to be, the “face” of an increasingly passionate and polarizing debate over legal cannabis in Thailand, which was decriminalized in 2022 by then Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who remains the powerful Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister.

However, cannabis has been essentially trapped in a legal grey area since the decriminalization with supporters and opposition having warred for the past two years over how to proceed, with some calling for complete recriminalization and some calling for better regulation but to allow recreational and not just medical. Meanwhile, Thailand now has thousands of basically unregulated marijuana shops and dispensaries and the business, estimated to be in the billions of Baht, keeps growing.

In fact, Pattaya just had its third annual medical cannabis festival at Central Mall over the past weekend. Although claiming to be for medical only, it is quite clear that much like prostitution in Thailand recreational use is rampant and even if marijuana was recriminalized wouldn’t magically disappear, similar to the ongoing debate around legalizing prostitution.

Somsak, the incoming health minister, was the justice minister when cannabis was decriminalized in 2022 and had stated multiple times that he supported that move at the time as it had over filled prisons with non violent drug users and offenders. He has also recently said he supports moving forward on the cannabis draft act, which officially is for medical reasons only but as stated has been stuck in debate for years due to some groups wanting dramatic changes.

One particular sticky point is proposing to ban recreational use entirely and implement up to 60,000 baht fines for being caught doing so. This has caused major anger with cannabis activists who claim this rule would be abused by corrupt officials to mainly extort foreigners for cash, like vaping previously. They also claim it is too vague in defining what medical use is versus recreational use.

And recently Thai PM Srettha Thavisin publicly said in a foreign tv interview he personally wanted to make cannabis a narcotic again, which caused major disruption and outrage from cannabis supporters. This would essentially make anyone who used cannabis a criminal and reimplement major fines and jail time. Srettha felt cannabis had caused major social issues and problems, especially for youth, with limited economic benefits. He did not, however, provide specific examples or peer reviewed data of these claims.

This interview caused Anutin to deliver what seemed to be a subtle warning that he and his powerful Bhumjaithai political party would not support making cannabis a narcotic again or banning it. Which, since he was the main driver in decriminalization, which to be fair was supposed to be only for medical use, makes sense.

Meanwhile, the now former Minister of Public Health Dr. Cholnan Srikaew had seemed to increasingly become frustrated in recent weeks, walking back Srettha’s statements to foreign television about banning cannabis again (which may have cost him his job) and being caught in the middle of an increasingly prickly battle between anti-cannabis prohibitionists and pro-cannabis activists backed by a now billion baht plus and growing industry and lobby which has threatened massive lawsuits if the status of cannabis is reversed and the spectre of years of legal challenges and headaches for the government.

To be fair, Dr. Cholnan appeared to be looking to find a way to compromise and appease both sides, especially in recent weeks, even admitting that the public as a whole did not seem to support a ban on cannabis and did not see it as a priority. However, Srettha has consistently been strongly against cannabis as has, importantly, his political party Pheu Thai who strongly opposed decriminalizing it in 2022. This of course made it an almost impossible position to be in for Cholnan, stuck in the middle between strongly opposed groups.

And, of course, the so-called godfather of the Pheu Thai party, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was recently paroled, has expressed on many occasions his disgust and distaste for the plant and led a very public war on drugs, including cannabis, several decades ago.

Enter former Minister of Justice Somsak Thepsuthin.

Although there has been no public statement on why the replacement for the health minister has been made, it is widely believed to be due to the ongoing cannabis issue. Where will Somsak lean on this situation? He is an able politician and has friends on both sides of the debate including Thaksin but was also recently very publicly involved in Thaksin’s hospital imprisonment situation and the controversy involved there and would likely not want more controversy or accusations that he was going to make cannabis a narcotic again for only political reasons and not health reasons.

Somsak has, as stated, called for further regulation (which to be fair all sides want, but supporters certainly don’t want a ban or recriminalization.) of cannabis recently also but added that he was aware how big the industry was and the potential for growth.

Somsak, with his experience in the justice ministry, would also know the processes to potentially roll back cannabis legally much better than Dr. Cholnan, but would likely be less aware of the actual medical debate over the plant which activists are sure to press him on.

Regardless, things are about to get very interesting as the cannabis draft bill continues to sit in limbo for the time being, awaiting eventually going to the Parliament for debate, where it will likely be just as contentious an issue.

Meanwhile, activists and prohibitionists carefully watch the situation in what is becoming an increasingly heated battle. Also watching, the champion of decriminalization of marijuana, Anutin Charnvirakul, still in arguably the most powerful ministry post of the government and his Bhumjaithai party being a critical supporter for the Pheu Thai government. He is sure to oppose any attempt to make cannabis a narcotic again which could cause tension within the government coalition.

It will be a very interesting few months.

Adam Judd
Mr. Adam Judd is the Co-owner of TPN Media since December 2017. He is originally from Washington D.C., America, but has also lived in Dallas, Sarasota, and Portsmouth. His background is in retail sales, HR, and operations management, and has written about news and Thailand for many years. He has lived in Pattaya for over nine years as a full-time resident, is well known locally and been visiting the country as a regular visitor for over a decade. His full contact information, including office contact information, can be found on our Contact Us page below. Stories please e-mail Editor@ThePattayanews.com About Us: https://thepattayanews.com/about-us/ Contact Us: https://thepattayanews.com/contact-us/