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Thai cannabis sector spooked as election winner mulls reversing legalisation

FILE PHOTO: Thai cannabis sector spooked as election winner mulls reversing legalisation

By Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A proposal by Thailand's election-winning Move Forward party to reclassify cannabis as a narcotic a year after it was made legal is sowing panic in an industry that is projected to be worth up to $1.2 billion over the next few years.

Thousands of businesses have sprung up since the legalisation of the consumption and growing of the drug, with numerous shops in Bangkok and other tourist areas offering "Best Buds" to delighted tourists and Thai smokers.

But now the prospect of a new government rolling back the free-wheeling market is making business owners like Netnapa Singsatit nervous.

"Tax cannabis, like cigarettes or alcohol, and enrich the nation. Don't put cannabis back in prison,” said Netnapa, who runs the RG420 cannabis shop in Bangkok's Khao San Road tourist district.

"They should have empathy for us business owners," said Netnapa, one of some 12,000 businesses that have received three-year government permits to operate, according to official data.

The progressive Move Forward is pushing to form the next government after winning the most seats in a May 14 general election that saw voters clearly rejecting military-linked parties and yearning for a return of civilian-led democracy.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was a party in the outgoing military-backed government that championed the decriminalisation of marijuana, at first ostensibly for medical use.

But the precise legal status of the drug has been hazy.

A promised bill to set out the rules failed to get through parliament allowing a huge recreational marijuana business to take advantage of the legal vacuum in a country that for years had a reputation for being tough on drugs.

Move Forward is hoping to form a coalition with other opposition parties including the Pheu Thai party, which, responding to worries about health and abuse by youngsters, made a campaign promise to ban the recreational use of marijuana.

Move Forward and its allies published their political agenda this week that includes a proposal to “reclassify marijuana as a controlled substance ... with new laws regulating and supporting its beneficial uses”.

ENDING LEGAL VACUUM

That is stirring consternation in the pro-cannabis lobby, including among the sort of progressive younger people who helped the opposition parties sweep to victory.

"I thought they're meant to move forward," grumbled Suphamet Hetrakul of Teera Ventures, a cannabis farm owner and wholesaler.

"A U-turn will hurt Thailand's credibility."

As of March, some 1.1 million people had registered with the government to grow cannabis, though it wasn't clear if all of them are doing so, or how many people are growing it without registering.

Reflecting the outcry over the prospect of tighter rules, some 5,200 people and 200 businesses have signed an online petition that says reclassifying cannabis as a narcotic would be a violation of the rights of the people.

Given the proliferation of shops and growers, let alone users, there have to be questions about any government ever putting the marijuana genie back in the bottle.

Move Forward appears to be treading carefully as it plots the future of a business that, according to a projection by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, could be worth $1.2 billion by 2025.

On Thursday, party official Sirikanya Tansakun defended the plan to reclassify marijuana, saying it was necessary to end the legal vacuum.

But she promised that businesses would get support as the party pushed regulation through parliament. While there would appear be little prospect of any sort of sweeping crackdown, she said unlicensed street vendors and smuggled imports of the drug would be stopped.

"Those who have invested legally will be protected and can continue their businesses," Sirikanya told reporters.

(Writing by Chayut Setboonsarng, Editing by Devjyot Ghoshal, Robert Birsel)