(CNN) — Thailand’s new government is moving to pass new legislation banning marijuana for recreational use, a major setback 18 months after the country became the first in Asia to legalize the drug.
Loose laws have spawned a lucrative cannabis industry serving locals and foreigners across the Southeast Asian nation, but a new conservative coalition government came to power late last year promising to tighten the rules and allow only doctors to use the drug.
Thailand’s health ministry on Tuesday unveiled a draft law that would impose heavy fines or jail terms of up to a year, or both, on violators.
The bill states that cannabis and cannabis-related products will be restricted to medical and health purposes, echoing Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s promise in September that his new government would ” Correcting” Marijuana Laws.
Even though smoking cannabis in public places would still be illegal under loose laws, the proposed new laws would ban advertising and marketing of cannabis buds, extracts and other cannabis products.
An earlier bill failed to gain parliamentary approval in November.
Thawisin expressed his views on banning recreational marijuana, saying in multiple media interviews that drug use was “a big problem in Thailand.”
CNN has contacted Thailand’s Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew for further comment on the new proposal.
Thailand became the first country in Asia to fully decriminalize cannabis in June 2022, a move years in the making in a region where many countries impose long prison terms and even death sentences for people convicted of possessing, consuming or trafficking cannabis. It’s rare.
In nearby Hong Kong, even non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) is banned.
Singapore has maintained its death penalty for drug trafficking and warned residents traveling to Thailand that they could still be prosecuted upon their return if they smoke cannabis abroad.
Medical cannabis has been legal in Thailand since 2018, but decriminalization in 2022 goes a step further, making it no longer a crime to grow and sell cannabis and cannabis products or to use plant parts to treat illnesses.
Since then, thousands of cannabis dispensaries have popped up across Thailand, along with other cannabis-related businesses such as cannabis cafes, cannabis spas and beauty treatments. Cities such as Chiang Mai and the capital Bangkok have even hosted cannabis festivals, with legalization a big draw for tourists.
But Anutin Charnvirakul, the former health minister who pushed hard for Thailand’s legalization of marijuana, previously told CNN that the intention was never to allow Thais and tourists to smoke marijuana in public.
“Thailand will promote a policy on cannabis for medical purposes. We have never considered advising people to use cannabis recreationally or to use cannabis in a way that may anger others,” Anutin said. “
“We have always emphasized the use of cannabis extracts and raw materials for health and medical purposes.”
Supporters of the legislation argue that Thailand’s cannabis boom has helped many Thais, from farmers to small business owners to workers behind the counter.
Marijuana entrepreneurs have previously told CNN they are firmly opposed to any legalization that would harm the growing multi-billion dollar industry.
Thailand’s advocacy group Future Cannabis Network expressed dismay at the government’s actions and stressed the importance of “public participation.”
Bangkok cannabis entrepreneur Kitty Chopaka, who has pushed for legalization for years, called this a knee-jerk reaction from the government and said it was “not unexpected.”
“But whatever happens with the new cannabis regulations, it’s already too late for cannabis to be classified as a narcotic again.”