Until last summer, Thailand had some of the world’s harshest drug laws, with possession of cannabis then punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But on June 9, marijuana was decriminalized and a resurgent cannabis culture has seen dispensaries popping up across the Southeast Asian nation of 70 million.
The move was the brainchild of Anutin Charnvirakul, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister, whose Bhumjaithai Party is today the junior partner in a military-backed ruling coalition. Anutin’s pitch was that legalizing cannabis could reduce prison overcrowding—more than 80% of inmates in Thai prisons were incarcerated on drug-related charges—while spurring a hemp industry to alleviate rural poverty. The Thai cannabis market is now projected to reach $9.6 billion by 2030.
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Anutin was also in charge of Thailand’s response to the pandemic, which devastated a tourism industry vital to the self-styled Land of Smiles. In 2021, Bangkok was the world’s most visited city with 21 million arrivals—though the spread of COVID-19 saw tourism ground to a halt. How to keep people safe but fed was a delicate balancing act and Anutin faced criticism for removing vaccine requirements for Chinese tourists amid Beijing’s chaotic dismantling of Zero-COVID and its worst spike of infections. Still, Anutin insists that “all my decisions to improve the tourism industry in Thailand strictly came from health literacy.”
And taking his public health responsibility to impressive heights, Anutin—who studied engineering at New York’s Hofstra University—regularly fetches organs for transplant in his own private plane. “In most cases, I would bring back a heart, lungs, kidneys, eyeballs,” he says. “So sometimes you can help six or seven people with one flight.”
Speaking to TIME in Bangkok’s Health Ministry building, Anutin lays out his vision for how cannabis decriminalization will benefit ordinary Thais and his hope for taking the nation’s top job following next month’s general election.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Cannabis decriminalization has been very popular. Why did it take so many years for this policy to be implemented?
Anutin: As we all know, cannabis has been criminalized for many years. During such a period, it’s been stigmatized and knowledge and research about the plant stopped. It’s become a devil in social perception. To de-stigmatize something takes time and effort.
What are the potential benefits of cannabis reform for Thailand’s economy and how can they be maximized?
What happened is that we’ve got a new “cash crop” or industrial crop. And like other industrial crops, it comes with economic opportunity. In the near future, we can maximize the opportunity by positioning Thailand as the leader in the market and becoming the source for products and know-how.
Do you think that Thailand could become an exporter of cannabis products to legal foreign markets like the U.S.?
Definitely. The relevant government agencies are working on the groundwork for this to happen. Part of this is to align our criteria with what’s required in the U.S.
How can you ensure that cannabis decriminalization benefits ordinary Thai people and not big corporations?
By creating reasonable legislation to govern the business, so that the opportunity is accessible to everyone. We have lessons from our laws regarding alcoholic beverages. There were criteria that enabled only the big investors to enter the market. We will not repeat that mistake.
Some of Thailand’s neighbors have objected to cannabis decriminalization. How do you balance boosting the domestic economy with maintaining good foreign relations?
I have not heard of any country objecting to this policy in Thailand. On the contrary, my counterpart in Malaysia came to Thailand a few months ago to study how we implemented the policy, because they have a plan to legalize the plant for pharmaceutical use as the first step.
Your father was a prominent politician and former Interior Minister in Thailand. What values did he teach you about public service?
All the good deeds he taught me may not have been different from other parents. But what I’ve learnt most is from his life experience as a businessman and a politician. Both are tough professions. I’ve learnt what to be careful of, what kind of risk to avoid, and what not to do.
Over 40 members of parliaments from other parties have joined the Bhumjaithai party in recent weeks. Do you feel the party is ready to lead following Thailand’s May 14 general election?
Definitely. We are like a complete jigsaw picture now. We have the people, the policy, and the position that best fits Thailand’s context. After years of conflict, Thailand needs a political party that is not part of the conflict and that is not a factor for conflict. We need a moderate approach and that’s what the Bhumjaithai party has to offer.
Cannabis decriminalization was the signature policy for the Bhumjaithai at the last election. Do you plan a similar bold reform agenda this time?
This time, we are in the context of restoring our economy, post-Covid. So, my policy is all about increasing opportunities for people to make money. We have a Contract Farming policy for [agricultural workers.] We’ll launch a grace period of 3 years for loans of less than 1 million baht [$30,000] to enable people to recover from damages caused by the pandemic. We will improve public health welfare for cancer and kidney patients. We also have a sustainability policy, which encourages the use of solar panels and electric motorcycles. When weaved together, you may see that our policy serves both local and global development agenda.
How do you plan to broaden Bhumjaithai’s appeal to more people?
We let the people judge us by our work and performance. My policy has this motto, “Walk the Talk”—we did what we said. Keeping promises is important for politicians.
Many young people in Thailand have been inspired by Bhumjaithai’s bold policy agenda. How can you help them to engage positively in politics?
We lead by example. Politics is sometimes like a war zone—it’s very tempting to attack others unfairly. That is something my party never did. We hope this will be a good example.
In recent years, young people have taken to the street to demand that Thailand’s royal palace stays out of politics. They especially want to reform the royal defamation law known as Article 112. Do you understand their perspective?
Article 112 only affects people who think negatively about our monarchy. If you live a normal life of Thai people, we don’t even feel that [Article] 112 exists. So the reformation of anything with regard to the monarchy is not on our agenda.
You have said Chinese visitors are important to help Thailand’s tourism sector. How do you strike a balance between health and economic priorities?
We based our decisions on scientific fact. That’s how we’ve been maintaining the balance.
You are known for delivering organs for transplantation in your private plane. Do you have time for any other hobbies?
In the past, when I had more time, my hobbies were music and sports. But I love flying also. I fly my plane to deliver organs to hospitals for emergency transplant. Apart from that, I love to spend some family time at the resort I’ve built.
Now that I have less and less time away from work, my passion is food. I love good street food and I sometimes write food reviews on my Facebook page, which seems to be more popular than my political talk!
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