Ideas ranging from wellness spas to profitable farms for rural communities could provide economic boost, say advocates
From Bangkok Hilton to Bridget Jones, Thailand’s reputation as one of the strictest countries in the world for drug offences is well documented. Even cannabis, considered a “less dangerous drug” by the UN, carries the potential for a 15 year prison term. But a recent announcement that it is to be delisted as a narcotic could trigger a transformation in how the drug is used inside Thailand.
“A lot of people come here to get their faces fixed with plastic surgery. A lot of people come to do dental work and oral surgery, and for wellness retreats. Within that context, marijuana will integrate beautifully.”
So says Carl K Linn, author of a newsletter about cannabis in Thailand, who who sees foreign tourism potential in the delisting of cannabis.
Thailand’s narcotics board announced in January it would delist cannabis that has a tetrahydrocannabinol level of below 0.2%, making it the first Asian country to do so. Thailand was also the first in south-east Asia to sanction medical use of marijuana in 2018.
Anutin Charnvirakul, the public health minister, said that once the delisting comes into effect – 120 days after publication on the Royal Thai Government Gazette website – people will be able to grow cannabis plants at home after notifying their local government. It will also be possible to obtain licences for commercial growth. A draft cannabis and hemp bill has been submitted to parliament detailing how to govern recreational use and growth.
But rather than “a stoner paradise”, Linn envisages cannabis being folded into the medical and wellbeing industry, attracting “Silicon Valley types” as they travel for corporate trips.
Already Thailand – from Chiang Mai in the north to beach resorts such as Phuket and Pattaya – has some cafes, spas, and restaurants offering products infused with cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound found in cannabis plants that doesn’t provide a high.
The new legislation could help such places expand their products to include other components of the cannabis plant.
Pittawad Taechanarong is marketing manager of the Green Wellness Clinic in Bangkok and co-founder of online cannabis store Bloom, which sells items such as CBD popcorn, ice cream and soap. He says the announcement means they’re exploring new therapies and products.
Mark Ritchie, executive director of Thailand’s International Sustainable Development Studies Institute, said the delisting of cannabis could help the rural economy.
Thanyapat runs Ganja Café near Bangkok’s famous Khaosan Road, and sells “cannabis-infused” beverages such as honey lime juice, chrysanthemum juice, and palm juice. The legalisation, she says, could bring an opportunity to offer new products and see a niche market expand to a mass market. “For Thailand legalising marijuana, in my opinion, this is good news … for agriculture, medical, and other business opportunities for Thailand,” she says.
Authorities are also exploring the idea of a “cannabis sandbox” that would allow tourists to visit the country while recreationally using cannabis in select areas, to help create destinations synonymous with the drug, according to local media.
In 2019, 39.9 million tourists visited Thailand. It’s estimated that 27.7 million will visit purely for the purpose of health and wellness in 2022, putting expenditure on health and wellness tourism at $2.5bn. The country’s recreational cannabis market has the potential to be worth $424m by 2024, according to cannabis research firm Prohibition Partners.
‘It could provide a spark’
Linn is optimistic that the bill will help Thailand rebuild its economy post-Covid. “Nothing as small as marijuana use can save [an economy], but I think it could provide a spark,” he said.
Ritchie agrees. “Thailand has done very well with Covid-19 but still the economy has been really impacted. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is part of the government saying, ‘Hey, we need to find some way to help boost the economy, and this could be one way to do it’,” he says. Thailand’s economic growth stagnated amid the pandemic, with a drop of -6.1% in 2020 and 0.8% growth in 2021.
Kitty Chopaka, an independent cannabis advocate based in Bangkok, says “industry people” from places including Australia, the UK and Canada are already contacting her about plans to visit Thailand following the announcement. “People are going to come to Thailand trying to find cannabis,” she says.
Tachanarong believes the move was political, given upcoming elections. “We voted for Anutin three years ago because he said he was going to make cannabis legal for the masses,” he says. “It’s been stagnant but then all of a sudden voting time comes around and all these promises are made again.”
“The cannabis industry in Thailand is growing and people in the industry are pushing so I’m sure there is no going back,” Tachanarong says.
But Chopaka believes obstacles may yet lie ahead, in terms of bureaucracy. “They’ll be like, ‘oh yeah, you can grow it at home, but here’s a big long list of rules you have to follow … or things you have to have before you can actually participate,” she says.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Linn says, is torn between two extremes; the tourist advocates who want no regulation and the narcotics board who want laws in place. “I’m hoping that the FDA will not listen to the two extremes and … provide clear legal space for recreational use without conditions,” Linn says.
At the time of campaigning in 2019, Charnvirakul said that the legalisation would be “a win-win situation for the Thai people because they will grow the plant and it will benefit the economy”.
Depending on what the finalised bill allows, the legalisation could lead other south-east Asian countries to follow, Ritchie says. “They’re all definitely watching the Thailand example and seeing, is this going to work or is this going to blow up in their face and be a bit of a disaster?”