Thailand: The First Country In Asia To Legalise Cannabis

Hannah Barnett breaks down the situation in Thailand since the June 2022 announcement that the country would legalise cannabis...

by Hannah Barnett

In June 2022, Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize cannabis after the Thai Food and Drug Administration removed all parts of the plant from the national narcotics list. 

Adults can now legally grow and consume cannabis in food and drinks, although all extracts containing more than 0.2 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabis’ principal psychoactive compound, remain listed as narcotics. 

According to Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, the new regulations were intended to promote small-scale cannabis farming and bring an economic boost to Thailand’s agricultural sector, which comprises a third of the national labor force and has been weakened by increased fertilizers costs caused by global supply chain disruptions. Anutin leads the Bhumjaithai Party, the second-largest party in Thailand’s coalition government and whose 2019 general election campaign largely advocated for cannabis decriminalization.

In 2019, Thailand also became first country in Southeast Asia legalize cannabis for medical research and use.  According to Data Bridge Market Research, Thailand’s medical cannabis market is projected to grow 25 percent between 2021 and 2028, while the entire legal cannabis market is expected to be valued at $9.6 billion USD by 2030. 

Anutin Charnvirakul. Picture by Rory Arnold

The new ruling also had a direct effect on Thailand’s prison population, 80 percent of whom are incarcerated on drug-related charges. Previously, anyone caught growing or trading cannabis in Thailand risked a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of $46,000 USD. After the new ruling was announced, approximately 4,000 Thai prisoners serving time for cannabis-related offenses became eligible for immediate release. 

The government indicated their commitment to championing cannabis as a cash crop when it announced its decision to distribute one million free cannabis plants to households across the country. More than 1.1 million Thais applied for home cannabis cultivation licenses between June and August 2022, according to Anutin.

Is cannabis in Thailand legal for medical or recreational use? 

Thai government has maintained that all cannabis should only be used for medicinal purposes, with Anutin noting that “there has never once been a moment that we would think about advocating people to use cannabis in terms of recreation – or use it in a way that it could irritate others.” However, the plant’s removal from the Category 5 narcotics list was not accompanied by any legislation regulating its consumption and trade, resulting in a legal grey area that also essentially permits recreational use. 

The Public Health Ministry has since implemented ad-hoc rulings to address some of these legal ambiguities. Weeks after the plant was rescheduled, the department outlawed its sale to anyone breastfeeding, pregnant, or under 20 years of age. Moreover, public consumption of cannabis remains illegal under the pre-established Public Health Act and risks a three-month jail sentence or a fine up to $800 USD.

Cannabis Bar in Thailand on Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai. Via Wikimedia Commons

The absence of additional regulation has led to the prolific growth of the recreational cannabis industry in Thailand. Cannabis products are now available in more than 4,100 cafes, restaurants, dispensaries, and head shops across the country. Tourists are flocking to these establishments in droves, and many locals accredit the legislation for boosting Thailand’s tourism industry to pre-pandemic levels. On Bangkok’s backpacker-central Khaosan Road, tourists can be found purchasing edibles, bongs, tea bags, and other cannabis products from a large number of available dispensaries. 

Nonetheless, the Thai government maintains that cannabis consumption should only be used for medicinal purposes and similarly cautions any foreigners who intend to use cannabis recreationally during their visit. As Anutin explained, “Thailand will promote cannabis policies for medical purposes. If [tourists] come for medical treatment or come for health-related products then it’s not an issue but if you think that you want to come to Thailand just because you heard that cannabis or marijuana is legal or to smoke joints freely, that’s wrong.”

To ensure that visitors are legally navigating the cannabis scene, in January 2023 Thailand published the English-language guide “10 Things Tourists Need to Know About Cannabis in Thailand.” The government has asked all provincial tourism offices to distribute the handbooks to visitors, and reportedly plans on translating it into several other languages. Perhaps indicative of the government’s historically conflicting messages on permissible cannabis consumption, none of the items on the guide explicitly forbid visitors from consuming cannabis for non-medical purposes. 

Was the decision to legalize cannabis in Thailand popular politically?

Although the government’s decision to legalize cannabis was initially met with public support, many are now critical of the absence of accompanying guidelines and regulations and are calling for the plant to be readded to the narcotics list until concrete consumption and trade laws are enacted. Doctors in opposition of the current regulations point to the dangers of an unchecked drug industry, such as one study by a Thai University that discovered an illegal amount of THC in more than 30 percent of randomly tested cannabis-based drinks. 

The future legal status of cannabis in Thailand remains uncertain, as it is unlikely that Parliament will pass any cannabis legislation before Thailand’s next general election, set to occur in May 2023. The Cannabis and Hemp Bill – which the Bhumjaithai Party introduced into Parliament last fall, has continuously stalled as legislators argue that it does not go far enough to ban recreational use or include enough safeguards to prevent misuse. Anutin has pushed back on these criticisms, stating that “as it is written, the draft bill is complete and can prevent misuses” and anyone against it is “politically motivated, seeking only to undermine the popularity of the political party that proposed it.” He pledged to resubmit the bill once the House reconvenes after the general election.  

These ongoing cannabis-related regulatory and political conflicts have not boded well for Thailand, whose cannabis reform rollout felt particularly fragile in a region notorious for strict drug laws. In most other Southeast Asia countries, cannabis possession, consumption, and trade carry severe legal penalties, including lifetime imprisonment and the death sentence. This political landscape, a complicated result of previous drug wars and high drug trafficking rates, has generated negative stereotypes and misconceptions about drug use that is not easily malleable. 

For this reason, it is unlikely that Thailand’s ruling will encourage bordering countries to completely overhaul their own cannabis policies, at least not soon. However, some countries such as Malaysia and Myanmar are reported to have begun considering less punitive approaches to drug use, developments which indicate an attitude shift but would nonetheless remain amongst the strictest drug laws in the world.   

Most attention in the region will likely stay focused on Thailand as it continues to exist in a legal gray area for the foreseeable future. A case study for the rest of Southeast Asia, much is riding on whether or when Thailand will achieve the long-term economic, health, and social benefits promised with cannabis legalization. It is probable that neighboring countries will wait to observe the implications of Thailand’s decision before proceeding with any moves of their own.  

Hannah Barnett is a medical anthropologist based in London. She specializes in psychedelic research and is passionate about the intersectional between drug policy, social attitudes, and culture. 

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