Thailand's weed scene is booming, but how long can the good times last?

Customers queue to buy cannabis at the Happy Bud, a cannabis truck at Khaosan Road, one of the favourite tourist spots in Bangkok, Thailand, after it was removed from the narcotics list under Thai law on June 13, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters file

Around the corner from Lucky Luke's Tiki Tiki Joint, a few yards from the Thai Cannabis Club and just outside the Mary Jane Dispensary, British tourist Bill lights up a spliff, blissfully unaware of the maelstrom of law and opinion engulfing the issue of weed in Thailand .

"What can I say? I'm from England and everyone smokes back there," the 40-something visitor says from the curb, before retreating behind a smoker's cough and a wall of weed smoke.

His actions are not strictly legal, but for now it is unlikely he will be stopped. Thailand decriminalised cannabis in June, but without establishing the fine print of who is allowed to smoke, what, where, when and how.

The aim of the law in a Southeast Asian country with harsh drug penalties — according to its champion, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul — is to spur the economy by using Thais' green fingers to grow high-grade cannabis plants for sale in medicinal marijuana use; hemp tonics, ointments, CDB oils and cancer treatments of no more than 0.2 per cent THC content, or not enough to get high.

But recreational use has exploded, creating a grey area of law enforcement, worrying parents and enraging conservative elements of Thai society, who are now pushing for the plant to be returned to the list of outlawed narcotics — or at least heavily controlled.

"The problem starts when you legalise something without regulation and without the people enforcing the law having any idea of what is happening or even what cannabis is," says Kitty Chopaka, a long-time free weed advocate and one of the driving forces for better education and law on the issue.

"This is the retaliation for that… but anyone who has been in business or advocacy in the cannabis space in Thailand for long enough knows you can never tell what will happen next."

The Cannabis and Hemp Act is yet to be passed, leaving lawmakers playing catch-up with temporary restrictions to coax back into control a weed scene which many experts say is currently the most liberal anywhere.

This week a blizzard of edicts tightened control — or some say added more confusion — to Thailand's cannabis conundrum.

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Effective from Thursday, ganja buds — which contain the psychoactive 'high' compound — are a 'controlled herb', but significantly not a banned substance or recriminalised on the narcotics list.

According to the Royal Gazette, it is now categorically illegal to sell cannabis to pregnant or breastfeeding women; under 20-year-olds and students, while smoking at "any business location is strictly forbidden" as is advertising the plant "in any form for commercial use".

There was no mention of smoking outside on the streets — although police have already warned they are empowered to fine people under public nuisance laws.

Still on Friday, LINE groups offered all manner of high-THC content cannabis products from brownies to spliffs, although some street stalls appeared to be discouraging smokers from congregating directly around their premises.

For the hardliners lobbying against weed liberalisation, nothing but a return to the list of banned narcotics will suffice.

"Classifying only flower buds as a controlled herb isn't closing the vacuum in any way," Pimrapee Panvichatkul, a lawmaker for the Democrat Party, said according to their official Facebook page.

If the Cannabis Act is passed households will be allowed 15 plants, she said.

"So people won't need to buy it… our kids will become junkies and in five to seven years' time we will see zombies walking all over town."

'We want good law'

Yet putting "the genie back in the bottle" may not be as simple as it seems, says Prajya Aura-ek, a cannabis entrepreneur invested in a farm and a few fully licensed dispensaries.

In Bangkok's Nana district alone, there are over two dozen competitors.

Some like 'Wonderland' are vast emporiums selling strains advertised outside at up to 25 per cent THC and presented in glass cabinets like rare watches, to smaller one-shop units like Prajya's Nana Weed Station staffed by helpful budtenders.

For the casual smoker, street hawkers sell individually wrapped joints (200-300 baht; S$7.70-11.50) or cookies; a few foreigners with side hustles offer gram-bags from backpacks to tourists, while several mobile weed trucks patrol the roads.

Free cannabis advocates say it was never meant to be like this.

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"It's horrible, it's chaos, we want it to be regulated and enforced properly… I don't want underage people smoking, people are buying off the streets very easily, while the origin of the weed is not being checked," Prajya says. "We want good law, a law that is clear and enforced."

Dispensary investors say they have already picked through the bureaucratic minefield of licensing in a new space as they try to build supply chains of high-quality cannabis.

They say the tussle over law is now chilling confidence in an industry which can bloom into a multibillion-dollar nationwide economy creating new jobs from farmers to budtenders.

"I'm a small guy, with a low investment," Prajya adds. "But all this chaos means we are keeping our investment as careful as possible until we are clear on what is happening."

There are also widespread complaints from smaller investors that high potency strains — sativa, indica and hybrid — are flooding the Thai market from America and Canada, undercutting the price for local farmers and challenging the logic of investing in an entirely new infrastructure to grow high-quality buds on Thai soil.

"American farms are producing it at about US$100 (S$138) per kilo," says Kitty, whose "Chopaka" dispensary was one of the first to open in downtown Bangkok.

"For the same high-quality strains here it costs about US$8,400. There's a race to the bottom in terms of price, led by some of the same big players who have been in markets across the world, they just rotate through as the laws change."

The price gap means margins for illegally imported weed — often couriered over by FedEx — are much higher, she adds.

'Not a game'

No one seems to know what will happen when the Cannabis Act is finally voted on in parliament - potentially within weeks.

On Monday, Anutin, the political driving force behind the weed liberalisation, told reporters recriminalisation was highly unlikely.

"Ganja is not a narcotic. What is considered a narcotic is extraction that has THC of more than 0.2 per cent," he said. "This is clear in the government policy, we've followed it through to the letter."

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Yet frustration and fear are building among Thailand's cannabis community, who believe conservatives with political agendas may ultimately try to reclassify cannabis.

Anutin is widely seen to harbour prime ministerial ambitions — and his Bhumjai Thai party is a key player in elections expected for the first half of next year.

"I would like to tell all politicians to stop using the people as your game," said Sarapratum Nattapong, a cannabis entrepreneur and activist.

"Those who have followed the law during this game have already suffered a lot of damage," he said, referring to the moving of legal goalposts.

Furthermore, any move to recriminalise cannabis use will drive a flowering industry back underground.

"Every marijuana user will again become a criminal and the credibility of investments by domestic and foreign entrepreneurs will be destroyed," Sarapratum added.

Outside a gym in Bangkok's tourist heartland of Nana, a Kuwaiti man struggled to spark a thin pipe in pouring rain.

"It's legal," he said, when asked what he thought of lighting up in a city street before a moment's concerned pause. "Isn't it?"

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.