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Thailand cannabis industry braces for legalization reversal

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
June 20, 2023

Thailand's prospective new government has proposed stricter regulations targeting the country's budding recreational cannabis industry. However, most Thai pot proprietors say cannabis is here to stay.

A cannabis shop in Bangkok, Thailand
Hundreds of cannabis shops have sprung up all over Bangkok since last yearImage: Tommy Walker

Thailand could see new curbs placed on its cannabis industry under the political coalition led by the Move Forward Party, which won the general elections in May.

In June 2022, Thailand's Food and Drug Administration officially took cannabis off the narcotics list, making possession, cultivation, distribution and consumption of cannabis all legal under specific conditions. Since then, thousands of cannabis shops have opened.

Over a million people have registered with the Thai government to grow cannabis since its legalization. The industry has been touted as a cash crop for Thailand, with the Thai Chamber of Commerce estimating the sector could be worth $1.2 billion (€1.1 billion) by 2025.

However, there is a concern in Thailand that the cannabis industry is out of control, with a lack of clear laws regulating distribution and consumption.

New threats to Thailand's thriving weed business

Some political figures have condemned the increased use of cannabis since its legalization, while there are growing concerns that imported cannabis is saturating the market and reducing profits for local Thai growers.

In response, the eight-party coalition led by Move Forward Party has included reinstating cannabis as a narcotic in their 23-point policy list.

Dispensary owners take it easy 

Although there is some panic in the industry about the reversal of cannabis legality, cannabis store owners and employees in Bangkok still have high hopes for the industry.

Kitty Chopaka, a cannabis activist who owns a dispensary in Bangkok, said there have been benefits from cannabis legalization, including providing more people with a source of income to pay off debt and provide for their families.

"It is a new industry, which opened a lot of opportunity. I've seen people able to pay off their debt, able to send their children to the school that they want and elevate their way of living," she told DW.

An employee at another nearby dispensary said the cannabis industry is a good source of income for small businesses and for jobs.

"This business is brand new, the owners let you be yourself, wear whatever you want. And it's better money here. I used to work at Starbucks," she said.

A woman talks on the phone in front of jars of cannabis
Cannabis dispensaries in Thailand provide a steady source of income Image: Tommy Walker

Move Forward Party leaders have since ensured that business operators and growers who comply with rules, such as obtaining licenses and registering with the government, will be protected once cannabis regulation comes into force.

New laws and regulations are expected to target unlicensed street vendors and illegal cannabis imports instead.

On Bangkok's popular party road Soi Sukhumvit 11, where bars, restaurants, food stalls and hotels all meet, there are now a handful of makeshift cannabis vendors on the roadside.

Some of these used to be food trucks prior to last year's legalization, but now, cannabis offers a more lucrative trade. However, some vendors worry new laws will shut them down.

One vendor said authorities have told him that within two months street vendors won't be allowed to sell cannabis.

"I don't think cannabis is a problem. But I'm worried. Today, the police called every shop and had a meeting. I think I will go somewhere else if cannabis is illegal again. I will open a restaurant," he said.

A street vendor in Bangkok
This vendor in Bangkok is worried the government will crack down on street sales of cannabisImage: Tommy Walker

Genie is out of the bottle 

Dispensary owner Chopaka said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of the cannabis industry right now.

"In terms of growing the business itself, everyone is kind of in this limbo," she said. Nobody knows what the regulation will look like. 

However, she doubts authorities will be able to reverse the law altogether. 

"The thing about Thailand is right now it's open. It's difficult to put it back into containment, the way people have access to cannabis. I'm not too concerned," she said.

Another dispensary owner originally from France told DW he isn't worried that his business would be closed. "No panic. They will regulate the places that need a license, but I think it's too late for it to be like before. We know in politics they talk a lot and sometimes nothing happens," he said. 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco