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Legal uncertainty dampens Thailand's thriving weed business

December 18, 2022

Opponents of Thailand's marijuana bill are calling for the plant to be re-criminalized amid concerns over growing recreational use. Its liberalization has also triggered a lucrative new industry from Bangkok to Pattaya.

Protesters march on World Cannabis Day in Bangkok
Smoking marijuana in public can still violate Thailand's public health lawsImage: Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/ZUMA/picture alliance

Thailand legalized the growing of marijuana and its consumption in food and drinks on June 9 and removed cannabis from its list of banned narcotics.

The Southeast Asian country hoped the move would boost its agriculture and tourism industry and allow the plant to be used for medical purposes. But lawmakers have failed to come to an agreement on how to regulate and control the new thriving industry.

"We are against legalizing weed in an uncontrolled manner that has been happening since the health minister delisted cannabis as a narcotic without regulation that can really be enforced," the leader of the opposition Move Forward Party, Pita Limjaroenrat said, during the bill's second reading on Wednesday. 

Uncertainty is expected to continue, as it looks increasingly unlikely that the law will be passed this year or even before Thailand's general election, which has been tentatively scheduled for May 7.

'Window of opportunity'

Thailand’s cannabis legalization, coupled with the post-COVID return of international tourism, has opened the floodgates for pot businesses to reap considerable profits.

Cannabis in the form of pre-rolled joints or edibles — of various strength and prices — have popped up across the country in recent months.

"We immediately saw this window of opportunity and decided to open a shop," said Pump Chittira, one of the owners of The Budtender Ganja Dispensary in the beach resort town of Pattaya.

With around 60 customers a day — the vast majority of them tourists — the shop generates between 50,000 baht ($1,442, €1,369) to 100,000 baht. After just four months in business, they are already set to expand.

"Our second branch will hopefully be up and running by the end of this year," Chittira said.

Less than two hours away, a similar scene is playing out in Bangkok. Finding Rainbow was among the first businesses to jump on the weed bandwagon, welcoming customers on the same day that the law changed in June.

"We make about 500,000 baht monthly," co-owner Pink Kitlipaporn told DW, adding that the business's strategic location near the airport means they have a steady stream of tourists straight off the plane.

"Some tourists are eager to get their hands on cannabis as soon as they land in Bangkok, so we also offer 'meet and greet' services where we deliver the goods at the terminal," she said.

Thailand closer to decriminalizing marijuana

Critics call for outright ban

But cannabis dispensaries are cropping up even in neighborhoods that tourists don't frequent.

"On this street alone, there are four or five shops, including ours," Thanakorn Luthammasarn, owner of Hempy, a cannabis shop on the outskirts of Bangkok, told DW. The 28-year-old said the procedure to obtain the permits to sell and grow weed in his shop was "uncomplicated."

Growing access to cannabis and its profitability have prompted some people to call for an outright ban.

"It was a wrong move to decriminalize cannabis without passing a regulation governing it first," said Smith Srisont, president of Thailand's Forensic Physician Association, who petitioned a court last month to relist the plant as a banned narcotic.

Amid increasing pressure, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, the architect behind the decriminalization of cannabis for medical use and as a cash crop, has repeatedly stressed that "marijuana was never meant for recreational purposes."

Smoking marijuana in public can still violate Thailand's public health laws.

Government introduces restrictions

The government made a new edict which came into effect in November. As a result, recreational smoking inside business premises were banned and flower buds are now classified as controlled substances with restrictions.

The herb can now no longer be sold through vending machines or online, in public parks, amusement parks, places of worship or hostels.

"The ban on online sales was unexpected," Finding Rainbow owners told DW, adding that it is still too early to say how much the new regulations will affect the business, as they rely on sales through their website.

Commercial advertizing is also prohibited while the existing rules limiting cannabis access to those under the age of 20, pregnant or breastfeeding women have been extended to include students at both school and university levels.

Meanwhile, the draft bill — still stuck in parliament — aims at providing clearer guidelines for the use of the plant, but strong objections are still being raised as recreational use has not been explicitly outlawed.

Too late to turn the tide?

Despite the regulatory uncertainty, the economic opportunities are too lucrative to ignore for some business owners, who are aware of the gap between regulation and enforcement in Thailand.

The owners of one weed store in Bangkok confided in DW that they would be willing to resort to "under-the-table payments" to bypass recent restrictions like the ban on indoor smoking.

But while some business owners are finding loopholes, many are in favor of a more viable path forward in the hope that Thailand's move to legalize cannabis will not be short-lived.

"We are willing to comply with the law, come what may," said Chittira, urging others who have also ventured into the cannabis business to think about long-term profits from the burgeoning market.

"Given the amount of investment so far, I doubt there'll be a U-turn on legalization but it's possible. The debate is so heated right now because the election season is fast approaching," he said. 

A director from the Ministry of Health declined DW's request for comment about the marijuana debate, calling the issue "a sensitive topic."

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum 

Emmy Sasipornkarn Srimingkwanchai
Emmy Sasipornkarn Multimedia journalist covering Thailand and Southeast Asia