Thailand’s cannabis industry clouded as legal threats emerge

Customers smell a container of cannabis buds at a dispensary in Bangkok. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK – Months after Thailand became the first Asian country to decriminalise cannabis, weed-related businesses are already changing its cityscapes.

Neon-lit signs with cannabis leaves are now a common sight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and the drug is seeping into everything from food to drinks and cosmetics, bolstered by the promise of revenue from weed tourism.

Despite its rapid growth, Thailand’s cannabis industry is, in fact, walking a political tightrope. Businesses currently operate in a grey area due to a regulatory vacuum whereby the drug was decriminalised before lawmakers could agree on how to regulate the industry.

Growing societal concerns about the impact of legalisation also threaten to set back an industry that is estimated to be worth over US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) by 2025.

“This is about politics. The government has come this far, but then the coalition parties now want to go back,” said Mr Rattapon Sanrak, founder of an advocacy group that runs Highland Cafe, a dispensary in Bangkok. “Criminalising it again would just force everything back underground, and entrepreneurs who want to do it right wouldn’t be able to.”

Lawmakers are expected to resume debate on a draft cannabis Bill that was designed to give the government more control over the industry as early as next week.

The Bill stalled after several legislators voted to withdraw it from debate in September, arguing that it did not go far enough in banning the drug’s recreational use.

The government has repeatedly said since June that decriminalisation was aimed at medical and commercial use for marijuana rather than recreational purposes. Though the draft Bill did not directly outlaw recreational smoking, it said lighting up in public will be prohibited.

Other restrictions include bans on causing unpleasant smells in public, selling to pregnant women or people under 20 and commercial advertising.

Pros and cons

The legal uncertainties leave cannabis users and entrepreneurs concerned that they face an uphill battle against politicians who hope to undo decriminalisation with the help of civil society groups.

Many academics and medical doctors have called for cannabis to be designated as a narcotic again, and this week, a network of students, parents and teachers added to the calls with a petition bearing more than 15,000 signatures.

A deadly shooting at a pre-school in October by a former policeman with drug links is also stoking calls for a clampdown on drugs and guns. Although most Thais do not link the shooting with cannabis policies, the main opposition Pheu Thai party has seized the chance to toughen its anti-drug rhetoric ahead of elections expected to be called by March.

Cannabis supporters argue that decriminalisation has thrown a lifeline to cities devastated by Covid-19 restrictions that have ravaged Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy. The Tourism Authority of Thailand itself has marketed cannabis as a travel experience, launching a series of guidebooks to promote areas where tourists can visit organic cannabis farms and get cannabis oil massages.

More than a million people have already been issued licences via the government’s mobile phone application since June 9 to grow cannabis, according to data from the public health ministry.

The boon for tourism is easy to see.

On Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, a haven for backpackers, a “cannabis complex” now houses more than a dozen dispensaries where visitors can shop for not only buds but also edibles, tea bags, massage oils and handmade bongs.

“Thailand is already big on tourism, and cannabis helps add value to all other businesses,” said Mr Worawut Ngamthanawit, co-owner of Joint Us, one of the shops in the Plantopia Weed City complex. The small dispensary has seen no lack of customers since opening in September, Mr Worawut said, as tourists wander Khaosan Road in search of the next exotic Thai strain to try.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Mr Justin George, a 42-year-old tourist from Canada, arrived at the store after a 30-minute tuk tuk ride based on a recommendation by a live-streamer on Twitch. It was his first time in Bangkok, and Joint Us was the third dispensary he visited that day.

“It’s the reason why I came to Thailand. I’d wanted to come earlier, but I wasn’t going until weed was legalised,” said Mr George, who added that he uses cannabis to cope with chronic back pain. “If I can’t smoke weed somewhere, I don’t go spend thousands of dollars.”

‘Money is flooding into the country’

Some 14km away on a busy street in the commercial Sukhumvit area, Mr Soranut Masayavanich, owner of Sukhumweed dispensary, explained how cannabis revived the fortunes of his business and even those of the local community.

His store sits amid rows of shophouses of street food vendors and restaurants selling rice dishes, boat noodles and dim sum.

“Cannabis has helped get people back on their feet. Money is flooding into the country. We haven’t seen Thailand this energised in a long time,” Mr Soranut said. “All the restaurants around here are doing well. The community is thriving because of the rush we’ve brought here.”

Restaurant owner Chainat Rodsukho, whose eatery sits near Sukhumweed, said the dispensary has livened up the neighbourhood after many local businesses suffered during Covid-19.

“They didn’t cause us any trouble, and their customers are very courteous, not at all what I had imagined,” he said. “Some of the customers became my customers too.”

Sukhumweed, which sources all its cannabis from local growers, carries a lip balm infused with hemp oil that shows on its packaging a cartoon drawing of Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul – a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the man who spearheaded cannabis liberalisation as part of his Bhumjaithai party’s campaign promises during the 2019 general election.

Dr Anutin has criticised opposition to cannabis legalisation as politicking, vowing that his party would not back down on its flagship policy. “As it is written, the draft Bill is complete and can prevent misuses. Those who are against it are politically motivated, seeking only to undermine the popularity of the political party that proposed it,” he said, calling the policy a “river of no return”. BLOOMBERG

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