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Thailand: Cannabis community hopes business can continue

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
October 3, 2023

Thailand's new prime minister has indicated the government will more strictly regulate cannabis sales, and the country's dispensaries are concerned about the future.

Cannabis vendors seen in their shop
Cannabis shop proprietor May Kamkrad (r) says her family depends on the shop's incomeImage: Tommy Walker

Thailand's cannabis industry is in limbo as the government mulls plans to re-regulate the plant for medical use only.

But the country's cannabis community is hopeful they will continue to do business.

Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to decriminalize cannabis last year, and since then, thousands of shops selling the psychoactive plant have opened.

However, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Thailand's new prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, said his government will look to regulate cannabis for medical use only.

Thavisin added that cannabis will not be regulated for leisure use and that the government hopes to bring in new legislation to that effect within six months.

Cannabis for medical use has been legal in Thailand since 2018, which was the first country in Southeast Asia to make it so.

But it wasn't until June 2022 that Thailand's Food and Drug Administration officially delisted cannabis from the narcotics list, making possession, cultivation, distribution, consumption, and sales of cannabis all legal under specific conditions.

Recent data shows that over a million people have since registered with the Thai government to grow cannabis. There have been nearly 6,000 cannabis vendors that have opened throughout Thailand in the past year, with over 1,200 in Bangkok.

New threats to Thailand's thriving weed business

What are Thailand's cannabis vendors saying?

Fat Buds Weed Shop operates two stores in the Thai capital.

May Kamkrad operates the Fat Buds in Bangkok's Ekkamai neighborhood, which opened shortly after cannabis was de-listed as a narcotic.

Kamkrad's customers include both local Thais and foreigners visiting Thailand. She told DW that running the store has been life-changing.

"I had to borrow money to open. For me, cannabis gives me a job, gives me work and has made me learn how to make money.  I was working in a restaurant. Now, I make more money than before. My family and our lives have gotten better, and when I make money, I can support my family," she said.

Kamkrad said she would be unhappy if any new regulation would prevent her from continuing to operate her business.

"I'm sad because I won't have a job to work. Maybe I'll have to protest," she added.

Fat Buds has a creative interior and is welcoming to its customers. It's filled with stickers, posters, figurines, and a graffiti wall complimented with dimmed lights and a homely atmosphere. The decor reflects its humble beginnings.

"We didn't put a ton of money into this. We had the table and aircon that's all. All of this has been added over time. It's not just a cash grab for us, we’re going for the long term, gaining the trust of the community, trying to do the right thing," said Ricky, who co-manages the store with Kamkrad.

A wall covered in stickers and writing
The Fat Buds cannabis shop started with a small desk and an air conditioner Image: Tommy Walker

Thailand's cannabis industry growing out of reach?

Fat Buds is unlike the dozens of flashy, new dispensaries in Bangkok nightlife hotspot Thong Lo.

Many new cannabis stores have popped up in renovated buildings, with clean-counter tops, bright lights, and higher prices. From the outside, many of these shops look more like medical centers.

As the government plans to classify cannabis as a medical product, this kind of dispensary may become the norm.

"Right now, things are normal as usual. I think we're really just going to wait and see if they decide to impose heavier regulations. And everyone's in the same boat. If they go medicinal, I just hope they do it in a way where they’ll not make you jump through hoops," Ricky added.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce had estimated the cannabis sector could be worth $1.25 billion (€1.19 billion) by 2025.

However, any restrictions in the industry will impact Thai livelihoods, according to Kitty Chopaka, a cannabis activist and owner of cannabis store Chopaka in Bangkok.

"I support over 50 farms in my shop, and one farm usually equates to a minimum of one to five families," she told DW. She added that cannabis should be responsibly accessible for the public, as the industry has shown it can follow rules.

A bespectacled woman tends to cannabis plants
Cannabis grower Kitty Chopaka says her farm supports hundreds of people operating small farmsImage: Tommy Walker

Gloria Lai, Asia Regional Director for the International Drug Policy Consortium, is concerned about who will benefit should new regulations come into force.  

"The industry has grown a lot larger now. Whatever kind of new regulations are brought in are going to impact a large range of people," she told DW.

"I think my concern is around the degree to which the government will be open and honest about what it plans to do around cannabis and not ending up with only a few elite, or large, powerful corporations able to profit from it," she said.

"Then most of the local farmers and small business owners are shut out," she added.

How could the cannabis industry change?

However, Carl Linn, author of newsletter Cannabis in Thailand, believes recreational use is here to stay.

"I think what will happen is that when this all shakes out, you will have a brand new version of what medical cannabis is," he told DW.

"I think they will have regulations that are designed to create an environment where only medical grade cannabis can be grown and sold. The aim is not the flashy idea that it's either all cannabis or no cannabis. I think that cannabis will be available to those who want to use it in Thailand."

A neon-lit cannabis shop in Bangkok
Many cannabis shops in Bangkok are large and flashy, though this could soon changeImage: Paul Lakatos/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

However, he predicts that more requirements will change the business landscape for recreational use in Thailand.

"They are going to require all dispensaries to provide certificates of analysis. That's an expense that will close down many dispensaries that are ineligible for a new licence. Then there will be some kind of mandate for track and trace software for all dispensaries," Carl said.

"I think they'll try to reinvent the branding. So that cannabis in Thailand is seen within the context of wellness and health care," he added.

"I think that the crazy, loud and overdone signage and the proliferation of the dispensaries will all go away. I think that over 65% of the dispensaries in Thailand will go away, so the landscape will look very different," he said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn