The King’s weed: reporting on legalization in Thailand
Thailand has always been one of digital nomads' favorite destinations, myself included. Since 2017, I have always spent a few months a year in the Land of Smiles, until a pandemic closed the global borders.
It is a vast country full of beautiful islands and fascinating mountains, where the local people are very friendly, but it is a favorite destination for many tourists from all over the world, mostly because of the low cost of living.
One thing digital nomads, and tourists in general, know about this part of the world is that they don’t mess around with drugs. Southeast Asia has some of the strictest drug laws in the world, with penalties ranging from several years in prison for possession alone, to even the death penalty, as in Indonesia.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that drugs are not present. Certainly, they are not easily accessible, with a few exceptions that I will mention later, but they are there. The average tourist well understands that it is better not to defy the law and take a risk here—after all, there are much more liberal countries to use drugs.
The exceptions I mentioned, and also the only ones I had witnessed firsthand, are on Koh Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, home to the famous Full Moon Party, where not only do people drink alcohol all night, but there also is a large supply of cannabis and shakes with psychedelic mushrooms.
I would also like to mention Pai, a small town of a few thousand people in northern Thailand, a favorite destination for many backpackers because of its unspoiled nature and…hostels selling cannabis! Yes, you read that right, during my first visit to Pai, the hostel bar was selling pre-rolled joints along with the usual local beers.
The existence of such places always seemed absurd to me: how could they exist and be tolerated in a country with such restrictive laws? It was not a secret that in these places, but not only there, weed and mushrooms were freely sold.
Perhaps a blind eye was turned to preserve the name these places had in the eyes of tourists?
It has to be said that, excluding these “anarchist oases” in the rest of the country, I have not seen any other narcotics, or perhaps not in the light of day.
This was the situation in Thailand when I last left this country in March 2020. This year, three years later, I decided to come back to spend some time there, well aware that, in the meantime, there had been a huge change, something totally unexpected and something I definitely wanted to see for myself and document.
In fact, in June 2022, Thailand decided to remove cannabis and hemp from the list of narcotic drugs, effectively legalizing them for all kinds of uses, including recreational.
But how did this law come to be? Was it really something that happened out of nowhere? Let’s examine it together.
What Led to the 2022 Law
2019: Medical Cannabis
Back in August 2019, Thailand became one of the first countries in Asia to legalize the possession and use of cannabis for medical and research purposes, under certain conditions, but going from that to legalizing it for recreational purposes as well is a huge step.
In Thailand, as explained in this report from VICE news, the clandestine market for cannabis oil had always been flourishing, particularly for medical uses and especially by people with serious illnesses, but even after the 2019 law, this clandestine market did not stop, as some people saw it as the only solution for suffering relatives—especially given that the approved and legally sold oil has THC percentages too low for many of them, as low as 0.2 percent.
2020: Cannabis in the Kitchen
In December 2020, the government decriminalized hemp leaves, stems, branches, fibers, roots, and plants, so many companies were able to start using these raw materials for the production of food, beverages, and cosmetics.
Or perhaps it would be better to say “start again” because, in Thailand, hemp was used for cooking foods and sauces for hundreds of years, until 1979, when it was banned under the Narcotics Act.
This other small step has meant that many restaurants have realized and begun to exploit the potential this product has in the kitchen, and a rush to use hemp to flavor many dishes has sprung up.
The opportunity is yummy and can create a thriving market for this type of Thai food outside the country as well.
Pressure on the Government
Some of the underground cannabis oil producers have been among the major promoters in lobbying the government to pass legislation to legalize medical cannabis.
The path to Thailand’s legalization of cannabis has been a long one and by no means an easy one, suffice it to say that the first Facebook page for legalization in Thailand was opened more than 10 years ago by several activists who created a foundation to promote this initiative.
In another VICE documentary, how the “Thailand 420 festival,” now in its seventh year, began as an academic seminar, with discussion groups attended by narcotics police and several doctors, is described in detail. This festival, which has now become more of a celebration with music and entertainment, has initiated many discussions in the public and private sectors on the need for legalization.
Interestingly, at each stage of this law that led to the full legalization of cannabis, people who had been imprisoned for offenses that were later decriminalized were gradually released from prison. More than 10,000 people convicted of kratom-related offenses and more than 3,000 people convicted of cannabis-related offenses were released, and their sentences were expunged.
Return to Thailand and First Impressions
Upon my arrival in Thailand, I headed to nearby Pattaya to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach, immediately noticing many stores selling cannabis everywhere, often located in the more touristy areas with more nightlife. Often, they had an area with couches so you could smoke it as soon as you bought it, but I saw many more people smoking in nearby bars, often accompanied by a cold beer.
I also noticed a lot of little kiosks on the street selling cannabis, at usually lower prices, most likely unlicensed, but it has to be said that unauthorized activities are normal and mostly tolerated around here.
In Bangkok, I stayed, for the first time, on the famous Khaosan Road, a favorite destination for backpackers who come here because of the very active nightlife it offers.
I went into several dispensaries to see prices and quality and have a chat with store managers.
The thing that struck me most is that none of them would have expected that cannabis would have been legalized for recreational purposes; in fact, many of those who have set up stores in recent months have done so in the wake of a large number of stores opening around them, and no one before June 2022 would have thought that this would be their new job.
Then, I headed north, specifically to Chiang Mai, and immediately noticed that there were not a lot of cannabis stores in my area. I eventually found two, one of which I had a hard time finding. I realized after a while that it was not really a dispensary, but a clothing store that also happened to have a different selection of cannabis inside available for purchase.
Or maybe I hadn’t looked around properly, since, every day after, when I would take a walk around the neighborhood, I would find a new and larger dispensery than the ones I had previously visited. They are popping up like mushrooms!
Normally at these dispensaries, the minimum purchase is one gram and prices range from 350 to 650 Thai Bath (9.7 to 18€), the weed is weighed and bagged in front of you, and qualities range from Top Shelf, the top of the range, to mid-low grade, indicating the cheaper and less valuable ones.
One thing I have noticed while traveling to less touristy places is the total absence of these coffee shops, which are modeled in a very Western style, and with Western prices as well. In smaller, less touristy Thai towns, you just don’t see any of them, as if they were something opened just for tourists. Of course, it is not impossible to get cannabis in these towns, but you probably buy it at the neighborhood market like everything else.
Where Does Cannabis Come From?
To this question I got very mixed answers—at first, I thought it was almost all imported from the U.S. or Canada since from the first shopkeepers I asked I always got this answer. But maybe it was a peculiarity of that area of the city or because I was interviewing store managers with more Western storefronts.
After more than a month spent here, I can say that there are also plenty of stores that sell cannabis grown in Thailand, and they are proud of it!
I also had a chance to chat with a couple of local cannabis growers who are also excited about this new opportunity. They also have a lot of knowledge about growing cannabis and derivatives in addition to making concentrated oils and cosmetic products. They are trying to innovate and create more and more quality products.
Among the concerns they have about this business, one concern is about the export of products, even those without THC intended for cosmetic products. They are sure that their products will never be able to be exported to neighboring countries, especially those of Muslim background, so it will remain a very localized trade.
The discussion then diverted to local products, as I had noticed a great divergence in quality among the various products sold in the various dispensaries. According to them, in the last year, too many people have jumped into this business, even without having any knowledge of hemp cultivation, and this lowers the average quality of the products being sold locally.
The Law Explained
June 9, 2022, was a historic day for all of Thailand, and soon after, dozens of cannabis dispensaries quickly popped up across the country. However, in the absence of clear rules and guidelines, the industry experienced several weeks of freedom without knowing what the limits were. Some regulations have since been introduced.
To understand this law well, at the time of writing, the Thai government has just published “10 Things Tourists Need to Know about Cannabis in Thailand” to help cannabis tourists stay out of trouble.
I summarize them briefly as follows:
- It is forbidden to carry seeds or other parts of the cannabis plant into and out of Thailand (you can carry it on domestic flights).
- Cannabis cultivation is legal, but you must register in the “Plook Ganja” app (this applies only to Thai people; tourists cannot cultivate)
- The sale and processing of cannabis for commercial purposes require a permit.
- People under the age of 20, pregnant, and nursing women may not use cannabis except under medical supervision.
- Possession of an extract containing more than 0.2 percent THC and synthetic THC requires a permit. Cannabis flowers with high levels of THC are legal.
- Dishes containing cannabis are available in licensed restaurants. Cannabis flowers cannot be used in food or other food products, but other parts can be used.
- Cosmetics, food products (not for children), and herbal products may contain cannabis (all parts of the plant except the flower)
- Smoking cannabis in public places, including schools and shopping malls, is illegal and is punishable by imprisonment of up to three months, a fine of up to 25,000 baht, or both.
- Avoid driving after consuming cannabis.
- Those who experience serious side effects from consuming cannabis should seek medical attention.
The Future: What This Means for Southeast Asia
Before coming back to Thailand, I heard several rumors that the government wanted to backtrack, albeit partially on the law, being afraid of becoming the new Amsterdam and attracting only a certain type of tourism. I think these were just baseless rumors since so far the experiment seems to be quite a success, and it is creating many new jobs and career opportunities for the local people.
Any person in the industry who is asked for an opinion on the new law will always repeat this sentence:
”This is a golden opportunity for Thailand.”
They have realized how so many sectors are benefiting from these laws, how the state can control this substance, and at the same time how to get citizens to use it for new opportunities.
Opportunities such as this had never been available here in Southeast Asia. Now, Bangkok really feels like Amsterdam, and not just because of the freedom to smoke cannabis but because Bangkok, and Thailand in general, has always had so much more to offer tourists.
We don’t know how neighboring countries will react, as they also have been hit hard by the tourism crisis generated by the pandemic. They still have restrictive laws on these issues and often out of their conservative nature do not want to change. Some Southeast Asian countries are already watching the Thai situation closely, and the hope is that, from the many opportunities created in the medical, tourism, and culinary fields, a domino effect will begin that will lead many neighboring countries to legalize cannabis.