Thailand Navigates a Messy Transition to Legalizing Weed

Bangkok’s Khao San Road has been the heady gateway to Southeast Asia for generations of backpackers. The sensory experience for backpackers is overwhelming: the heat of the sun, the smell of burning red chili, and the smoky aroma of smoldering woks. For the brave, there’s a wide variety of drugs and mind-twisting drink available down at the back alleys and in dimly lit bars. Saccharine marijuana smoke was never far away, nor were tales of hapless foreigners hauled off to the city’s infamously fetid jail, dubbed the “Bangkok Hilton,” for smoking a mere joint.

The Khao San Road is changing. On June 9, Thailand became the first country in Asia—and only the third in the world, after Canada and Uruguay—to decriminalize cannabis nationwide. The United States has a federal ban on cannabis, but it can still be used recreationally in the District of Columbia and 19 other states. Tourists can find a variety of shops and vendors selling the glistening cannabis leaves of Hindu kush and white widow in Bangkok today.

On metal tables, the hawkers set up bricks of cannabis and hashish every morning. Glass jars akin to a 1930s candy shop overflow with gummies laced with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives cannabis its trademark “high.” Even 7-Eleven sells cannabis-infused drinks and beauty products, while restaurants offer soups, curries, and pizzas spiked with ganja leaves. Pre-rolled joints are available for purchase at 100 baht ($2.80), and two ready-rolled joints can be purchased at 180 baht ($5). Police stand by, or line up for a baggie.

Khao San Road is a Bangkok vendor who shows his customers the different types of cannabis he has.

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“It’s amazing, I didn’t know weed was legal until I got here,” says Magnus Pedersen, 22, from Norway, who is used to visiting Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops. “Being able to blaze up on a Thai beach is another level.”

Continue reading: What Thailand’s Legalization of Marijuana Means for Southeast Asia’s War on Drugs

It’s a stunning U-turn for a country known for some of the world’s harshest drug laws. Thailand has the largest prison population among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—some 285,000 people—and more than 80% of inmates are incarcerated on drug-related charges. This draconian past is ironically behind broad decriminalization. After consultations with U.N. bodies, Thailand released a progressive new narcotics bill last December. This was done in an effort to reduce the number of prisoners and allow addicts to get out of prison cells. However, the interministerial body that oversees drug policy couldn’t decide on the specific limits to be placed on cannabis. This was chiefly because a flagship policy of Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s Bhumjaithai Party—a key ruling coalition partner—was to decriminalize the plant.

Anutin stalled and threatened to take down government officials if members of the committee didn’t agree to cannabis regulations by June 9th. Cannabis was legalized by default in that vacuum. “Today, society is for the most part knowledgeable, understanding and ready to consume cannabis the right way,” Anutin said Aug. 10. “More people will understand it over time.”

Anutin’s pitch was that cannabis could become a valuable cash crop to help alleviate poverty among rural farmers. In truth, it was simply the most popular of several policy gimmicks his upstart party flirted with before Thailand’s 2019 general election. Anutin, in well-rehearsed publicity stunts, has distributed 1,000,000 cannabis plants to homes since the decriminalization. (Critics also point out that Anutin’s brother is on the board of a company that produces hemp, although Anutin denies any impropriety.)

Anutin maintains that Thailand’s low costs and strong agricultural infrastructure—it’s already among the world’s top exporters of rice, seafood, and sugar—makes it well placed to become a cannabis powerhouse, cashing in on a growing trend toward medical and recreational decriminalization around the world. Global sales for medical cannabis were estimated at $37.4 billion in 2021, according to market-intelligence firm Prohibition Partners’ Global Cannabis Report, which predicts the market will soar to more than $120 billion by 2026. Thailand’s cannabis market is estimated to reach $1.2 billion by 2025.

Eastern Spectrum Group’s staff checks on the drying of cannabis flowers from their Ratchaburi farm.

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There are approximately 4,200 cannabis-related prisoners in jail who have been released since the day that decriminalization became effective. Those convicted of illegal cultivation even had their seized equipment—ultraviolet lights, grow tunnels, irrigation apparatus—returned to them. In a matter of hours many were released from prison and returned to their legal businesses.

Still, Thailand’s frenzied weed free-for-all has met growing pushback from some in the medical establishment as well as social conservatives. Thailand included cannabis in an existing law regarding traditional medicine. This means that it is now illegal to sell the drug to anyone under 20 years old, pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers. While growing cannabis for personal use is permitted, selling derivatives or plants requires an official license. Cannabis flowers can contain an unlimited amount of THC. However, derivatives such gummies may only have 0.2%. Smoking cannabis at home may be legal, but lighting up in the street is discouraged by existing laws governing behavior deemed a “public nuisance” and could mean a $700 fine or three months’ imprisonment.

Continue reading: Revenge Travel May Be a Big Problem for Places Like Thailand’s Famous Maya Bay

It’s an extremely confusing picture where different government ministries consistently say contradictory things. Despite the lack of regulation and rampant proliferation, Anutin continues to deny that recreational cannabis is legal, but says that it can only be used for “medical purposes.” He also said that “we won’t welcome” marijuana tourists even as the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mulls setting up a “cannabis sandbox” that allows tourists to light up freely in designated zones. Plus there are the challenges of Thailand’s becoming a cannabis exporter given logistical barriers to shipping what’s commonly deemed a controlled narcotic, not to mention competition from mature markets elsewhere. The budding cannabis industry is still vulnerable to the possibility of draconian prohibition.

“One way or another, policy clarity is needed,” says Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. “It would be a shame if Thais or foreign tourists got caught on the wrong side of the law because of mixed messages or perceptions.”

The stakes are something few people appreciate. better than Chokwan “Kitty” Chopaka, a longtime cannabis-legalization advocate who opened a hole-in-the-wall weed dispensary by Bangkok’s bustling Asok intersection just two days after decriminalization. Her tiny premises is an Aladdin’s cave of cannabis delights, selling flowers, gummies, and huge bamboo pipes. In her first week, she cleared more than $28,0000, despite being open only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. “People were complaining that they couldn’t buy weed outside of office hours,” she says, “but I still had so many people queuing outside that I had to hire a security guard.”

Then, on July 27, a Thai official issued a directive to “arrest and prosecute” those selling cannabis without “permission,” saying dispensaries like Chokwan’s “should never have existed.” The order sent panic across the nascent cannabis industry. Chokwan closed her business and ran to the FDA for help. Dispensary operators flooded the offices when Chokwan arrived. After receiving a receipt, she was able to leave with her license application. Hours later, a top health official announced that the arrest order had been rescinded since the license that dispensary owners were ordered to obtain didn’t actually exist yet. Chokwan was reopened on the following day.

“We’re in limbo right now regarding the rules,” Chokwan says. “I can’t plan the next three months; I can’t even plan the next week. It’s crazy.”

Chokwan “Kitty” Chopaka poses inside her cannabis dispensary on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road

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It is easy to understand her anger given the harsh measures used by Southeast Asian governments for over 40 years to curb narcotics.

The use of cannabis in Indochina was a common way to cook or for medicinal purposes. It is used to treat a wide range of conditions, such as migraines, dysentery and asthma. But after Washington stationed tens of thousands of American troops at military bases in Thailand during the 1960s, the local marijuana industry exploded with cheap, potent pot, especially the infamous “Thai stick.” In 1967, one dumbfounded DEA agent dubbed Thai weed “the Cuban cigar of the marijuana world,” writes Peter H. Maguire in Thai Stick: Scammers, Surfers and The Untold Story About the Marijuana Trade

In the 1980s, U.S. diplomats put pressure on Bangkok to cooperate with them in ending the illegal cannabis trade. U.S. Coast Guard took 463,000 lb. in 1988. Southeast Asian marijuana headed for American pipes or bongs.

By 2003, the Thai government under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had declared its own “war on drugs” that demonized addicts. Human Rights Watch says that, despite being popular, it was brutal. The campaign saw over 2,200 deaths in its first three months. The campaign was also vulnerable to abuse as the police made arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders. A similar campaign was waged by Rodrigo Duterte, former President of the Philippines. The death toll has been estimated at around 13,000 by rights groups. Many of these deaths were children. U.S. training and equipment have been provided to both the Thai and Philippine police.

Today, however, Thailand’s cannabis trade with the U.S. has flipped on its head. Chokwan and other dispensary operators face the greatest challenge: a surge of illegally imported American marijuana that undercuts local varieties. “Thailand was the exporter of the illegal weed into the U.S.; now the U.S. is the illegal exporter of weed into Thailand. It’s hilarious,” says Chokwan. “But they are ruining our farmers’ livelihoods because their price is at least half.”

Local producers will need to catch up. There is a question about whether cannabis will become a dominant industry in Thailand like many others. Thailand’s business environment can lead to a high level of exploitation. For example, farmers in Thailand are often contracted by a few large agricultural conglomerates to plant rice and corn for a fixed amount based on their land size. Although below market price, it’s a guaranteed income; most farmers prefer that security rather than risk the vicissitudes of weather, disease, and global commodity prices. This is the fear that the Thai marijuana boom could repeat the same pattern. It will dilute the benefits of low-income farmers and increase the profits for corporate titans.

Currently, due to uncertainty in the legal status of cannabis, large conglomerates have been investigating pilot projects for marijuana. Some existing players may be able to take advantage of this practice. Not least since “growing cannabis is super hard,” says Chokwan. “You can have all the money in the world, but if you just don’t get it, you don’t understand it, you’re going to fail miserably.”

Bangkok vendors sell marijuana products nightly in July.

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Thanisorn boonsoong has the answerYou know it all too well. The founder and CEO of Eastern Spectrum Group, one of Thailand’s biggest licensed cannabis producers, has 80 acres of fields and a research and development lab two hours’ drive west of Bangkok. Many farmers wear camouflage trousers and sunvisors to prune the cannabis plants and dry them on drying racks. Technicians then extract various oils, distillates and biomass for use in fabric, cosmetics and gummies manufacturing. “It’s about marrying our Thai farming experience with Western resources, precision farming, and knowledge of cannabis,” says Thanisorn.

Thanisorn first became interested in hemp when Massachusetts legalized recreational cannabis in 2016 while he was studying business at Boston’s Northeastern University. Thanisorn saw great potential in the growth of many hemp products. Thailand was first to permit cannabis to be prescribed for medical purposes. “Hemp is the embodiment of disruptive innovation, all packaged into one plant,” he says.

Inside Eastern Spectrum’s development lab, scientists in white lab coats tinker with glass tubes and steel containers to decipher the best way to extract THC and cannabidiol—a therapeutic component that doesn’t produce a high, more commonly known as CBD—from the 2.5 million spindly cannabis plants the firm grows annually around the country. Since June 9, Thanisorn has seen a “surge” in orders for raw cannabis flowers for dispensaries.

Still, he’s sanguine about the potential for a Thai cannabis bonanza. Thanisorn, who studied the American cannabis market, found that firms with high overheads and expensive greenhouses are more likely to go bust. The price of CBD isolate in America was $10,000-$12,000 per kilogram three years ago. Today it’s lucky to fetch $400. Although prices for Thailand’s cannabis are higher than in the United States, Thailand is likely to see a drop as they continue following global trends. Eastern Spectrum chose to cultivate cannabis in the fields, instead of under direct ultraviolet light. Thanisorn claims this allows Thai cannabis to be globally competitive.

Eastern Spectrum’s initial plan is to expand to at least 2,000 acres. Instead of centralized control, Eastern Spectrum invites farmers to its property and shows them how cannabis can be grown. Three to four cycles of cannabis cultivation later, farmers can graduate and go back to farming on their land.

By harnessing such techniques, Thanisorn says it’s “100% possible” for Thailand to become a major player in the global cannabis industry in perhaps three to five years. There are still many obstacles. Despite having lower utilities, infrastructure and labor costs, Thai growers are still lacking in knowledge and experience. Many of the most popular strains in North America, Europe and Asia grow better in tropical than temperate climates. “Thailand still has a long way to go before we’re able to compete with the West on quality,” says Thanisorn. “But on price, we definitely can.”

Thanisorn Boronsoong (CEO at Eastern Spectrum Group) speaks to Ratchaburi staff.

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Even if the quality issue is addressed, there’s a big question mark over how to reach foreign markets. Many Asian countries are unlikely to follow Thailand in its pursuit of blanket cannabis legalization. Officials in Japan and Singapore have already warned that citizens who smoke cannabis while on vacation to Thailand could face prosecution. Due to red tape, and because it would only use routes that cross international waters, exporting cannabis from the West will be costly. “The [Thai]Government wants us to export. But who can we export it to? Who can import it?” says Thanisorn. “That’s a whole different question altogether.”

It is better to have a local cannabis industry, which caters to the needs of locals. This will also help with rebounding tourist numbers. You can buy joints at the reception desks of guest houses in Chiang Mai’s northern walled city. On the island resort of Koh Samui, tourists can purchase cocktails made with cannabis syrup and vintage champagne at tony beaches clubs.

The cannabis boom days are over, however. On Aug. 15, the police chief for Bangkok’s Phra Nakhon district said that street hawkers of weed on Khao San Road were illegal and would be prosecuted. It was the spur that, bizarrely, Bangkok Governor complained about smelling marijuana while running nearby. There are rumors that cannabis businesses will be moved to a single alley adjacent to Khao San Road to keep them out of public view, much like sex work is concentrated in certain “entertainment zones.” Much will depend on a belated law governing cannabis use that is due to be promulgated in coming weeks.

However, even in Thailand, there is a wide gap between regulations and enforcement. Although prostitution in Thailand is not illegal, there are 250,000 prostitutes working at prominent bars. The reality of Thailand’s cannabis market may be a blurry haze like Khao San Road, regardless of the laws. Chokwan and other advocates can only sit back and wait. “This is Thailand,” she says with a shrug. “There’s no way of knowing how the authorities will act.”

—With reporting by Cedric Arnold/Bangkok, Chad de Guzman/Hong Kong, and Simmone Shah and Julia Zorthian/New York

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