Amongst the throngs of tourists, we spotted the neon green cannabis sign. Initially unexpected, it had become a familiar sight on our trip across Thailand. Wafts of weed mingled with the smells of sweet waffles and chili-infused pad thai.
It was the Thursday night market in the northern village of Pai, a destination known for its hippie vibes and laid-back atmosphere. If anywhere was going to make the most of Thailand’s newly relaxed approach to cannabis, it was here.
On June 9, 2022, Thailand had become the first country in Asia to decriminalize cannabis, marking a stark departure from decades of harsh prohibition. But it wasn’t to be the country’s last cannabis U-turn.
Thailand has the largest prison population in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), with 80 percent incarcerated for drug-related charges. Alongside typical drugs, the country also bans nicotine vapes, although it notably decriminalized kratom in 2021. And it even imposes the death penalty for certain drug convictions. This doesn’t make it an outlier in the region: Singapore, for instance, still executes people for drug trafficking.
It was a surreal contrast to my memory of a country where purchasing weed seemed a guaranteed prison sentence.
That’s why, as I stood there on the streets of Pai in 2023, choosing between an overwhelmingly large selection of joints, brownies and cookies, it was a surreal contrast to my decade-old memory of a country where purchasing weed seemed a guaranteed prison sentence.
Cannabis has been used for medical, spiritual and culinary purposes in Thailand for a long time, but was criminalized in 1935. Since then, advocates in the country have led a long-running movement to acknowledge and sustain cannabis use for those original purposes.
A “Wild West” of Weed
For decades, this yielded little tangible progress. But then, a few years before the 2022 transformation, came hard evidence of a thaw.
“Thailand adopted new regulations allowing the medical use of cannabis in 2018, under a restrictive regime where only a limited range of products could be made available for consumption, and where prescribed by medical practitioners,” Gloria Lai, regional director of Asia for the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), told Filter.
“When cannabis, except for extracts containing more than 0.2 percent THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, one of the active compounds], was removed from the schedule of substances under the Narcotics Code in June 2022, it became legalized,” she continued, “meaning that it can now be cultivated, bought and sold as a ‘controlled herb,’ governed by laws overseen by the Ministry of Health, instead of the Ministry of Justice or Office of the Narcotics Control Board.”
“Some of the most significant impacts were the elimination of criminal penalties for use and supply, which led to thousands of people released from prison.”
This led to the immediate liberation of more than 4,000 individuals who had been incarcerated for cannabis-related charges—an undeniable and incredible step forward, although others remained in prison. To see the Thai public health minister facilitate the distribution of 1 million cannabis seedlings, actively encouraging people to cultivate the plant at home, also felt extraordinary.
“The Bhumjaithai party seized on political opportunities to legalize cannabis, primarily for the medical and economic benefits,” Lai explained, referring to the conservative party that’s been a junior partner in coalition governments since 2019. “Some of the most significant impacts were the elimination of criminal penalties for use and supply, which led to thousands of people released from prison and having their criminal records expunged, and also people can grow and use cannabis for personal use without fear of police arrest and further punishment.”
When decriminalization was enacted, however, the government’s official statements emphasized medical cannabis use, with no clarification regarding rules around non-medical use.
“The change was sudden and carried out without comprehensive consultations inclusive of communities of people engaged or interested in engaging in cultivation, consumption and supply,” Lai said. “This resulted in widespread confusion, and there was little effort from the government to address that confusion.”
Labels allegedly displaying THC content were more for show than any real indication of potency.
The lack of clear guidelines led to something akin to a Wild West of weed, as an entire new industry took root. Almost overnight, more than 5,000 cannabis shops, like those I experienced during my trip, appeared on the streets in major cities, remote villages and everywhere in-between. At the same time, lighting up in public continued to be officially against the law, carrying a penalty of about $780 for causing a “public nuisance,” or even the possibility of three months in jail.
Meanwhile, edibles containing more than 0.2 percent THC have always remained illegal in Thailand. But during my brief tryst with the country’s relaxed weed laws, it quickly became clear that the meticulously applied labels, allegedly displaying THC content, were more for show than any real indication of potency.
Strictly in the name of business, I sampled brownies across Pai, Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Phuket, each supposedly having the same THC percentage. By the time I reached the third brownie I felt like a real-life Goldilocks, on a quest for that elusive “just right” buzz.
A Second U-Turn
Then, just one year after cannabis was decriminalized, Thailand’s newly-elected government announced a U-turn on a U-turn. The new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, of the populist, right-of-center Pheu Thai Party (part of the current coalition), intends to revert cannabis back to medical use-only at some point in 2024.
“The recent national election has seen a change in administration where the party of the prime minister had campaigned for much stricter drug policies,” Lai said. “The government has since announced that new laws regulating the cannabis market are expected to pass in mid-2024, which will aim to support only medical use of cannabis, with restrictions on the sale of certain cannabis products and related equipment.”
As Lai explained, this is highly likely to have an impact on the thousands of businesses that have made weed their income over the past 18 months. She has concerns that it will shut out small business owners and local farmers who have been able to make a livelihood from this. The market, she fears, will instead be left to elite or large organizations to profit.
In addition, potentially millions of Thai people, who may not be able to obtain a prescription, could either lose access or face harsh criminalization once again.
Observers see it as illustrating the vulnerability of decriminalization in the absence of consultation or clear guidelines.
With economic factors no doubt a key factor in the initial decriminalization decision, the past year would have been the perfect opportunity for the government to study health and social outcomes of the policy, obtaining data to inform its next steps. However, Lai is unaware of any such studies being carried out.
The motives behind this re-regulation are as murky they were for the initial decriminalization, though Prime Minister Thavisin told Bloomberg in September 2023 that drug problems had been “widespread lately.”
What the World Can Learn
In a region renowned for its inhumane drug policies, Thailand was becoming a pioneer. Observers see the latest 360 as illustrating the vulnerability of decriminalization in the absence of consultation, or clear regulations and guidelines. However, there has still been something gained.
“Countries can seek to learn from the positive impacts of the legalization of cannabis in Thailand on communities,” Lai said. “Especially the significant reduction in the damaging impacts of policing, criminalization and incarceration on individuals and their families, as well as the increased access to cannabis for medical purposes.”
“They can also learn from the areas that could be improved,” she continued, “particularly the need to include communities who hold expertise and experience of cannabis and cannabis regulations in the development, implementation and monitoring of cannabis policies.”
As for what’s next for cannabis in Thailand, we’ll just have to wait and see. I certainly hope that I can indulge in a brownie (or five) on my next trip to the country. But the fate of millions of Thai people who may want or need cannabis, and of all those still incarcerated, is far more important.