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The rush to cash in on Thailand's hazy cannabis laws

posted 7 Oct 2022, 22:33 by Happi Mess   [ updated 30 Oct 2022, 23:45 ]


The rush to cash in on Thailand's hazy cannabis laws

The new reality for tourists returning to Thailand

It's a hot Sunday afternoon on tropical Koh Samui and tourists at a luxury beach club are relaxing on white sofas, cooling off in the pool and sipping expensive champagne.

Some are also smoking cannabis joints, right out in the open.

It's a startling sight in Thailand where, until a few months ago, people caught with the drug were often jailed.

But cannabis, or "ganja" as it's known here, is no longer classed as an illegal drug in Thailand.

In June, the south-east Asian nation took the plant off the banned narcotics list so people could grow, sell and use it for medicinal purposes.

Chi Beach Club.

At a beach club on Koh Samui, waiters serve joints to visitors as they sit around the pool.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

A man with a joint and a woman.

Carlos Oliver (left), a British national on holiday in Thailand, says the country is like "the new Amsterdam" thanks to the sudden decriminalisation of cannabis.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

But a law regulating its recreational use has not yet passed the parliament, leaving a legal grey area that many, from tourists to "ganja-preneurs", are now rushing to take advantage of.

"There's a huge demand for cannabis," says the beach club's owner, Carl Lamb, a British expat who has lived on Koh Samui for 25 years and owns a number of resorts.

Thailand's resorts were already flickering back to life after the pandemic but, according to Mr Lamb, the decriminalisation of cannabis has been a "game changer".

"The number one call we get, the number one email every day is, 'Is it true? Is it correct that you can sell marijuana and smoke marijuana in Thailand?'" he says.

"I haven't seen this kind of appetite for Koh Samui in 10 years."

Technically, people can be charged with being a nuisance for smoking in public, with a maximum penalty of up to three months in jail or a $1,000 fine, or both.

"We did have the police come in and visit us when it first started and we'd already done our research on what the laws were and they just reinforced it and reminded us of the laws," says Mr Lamb.

Thai law currently restricts those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or under 20 from using cannabis.

"And [the police said] if it bothers anyone then we have to shut it down immediately … We actually welcome some sort of regulation. We don't think it's a bad thing."

A pizza with cannabis leaf on top.

Cannabis-infused food is now on the menu at a beach club in Koh Samui, Thailand.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

Joints in a box.

A box on the beach club counter contains joints for sale over the counter.(Foreign Correspondent)

He says no one has complained here yet.

"It's like the new Amsterdam," says Carlos Oliver, a British tourist at the resort, as he selects a ready-rolled joint from a black box.

"We came [to Thailand] when marijuana wasn't available, then a month into our trip you could buy weed everywhere – in the bars, in the cafes, on the street. So we smoke it and it's like, how cool is this? It's amazing."

YouTube Watch Foreign Correspondent's Thai High on YouTube.


Confusion after rapid decriminalisation

Up in the capital Bangkok, new cannabis businesses are springing up every week.

Kitty Chopaka still cannot believe she is allowed to sell real cannabis alongside the cannabis flavoured lollies in her colourful shop in the upmarket Sukhumvit area.

"Oh my God, I never thought in my lifetime that this would actually happen," the passionate cannabis advocate says.

Ms Chopaka admits there was some initial confusion for new dispensaries and curious customers, after the government insisted cannabis was for medicinal and therapeutic use only.

Cannabis extracts must contain less than 0.2 per cent of the psychoactive chemical THC, but dried flowers are unregulated.

And while the public nuisance law forbids smoking in public, there is no ban on smoking on private property.

Kitty Chopaka.

Kitty Chopaka now sells real cannabis alongside cannabis flavoured lollies in her shop on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

"I never thought that Thailand would let something be delisted before they put in rules for it, but then again, Thai politics surprises me all the time," Ms Chopaka says.

She has been advising the parliamentary committee drafting the new law, which has been delayed as stakeholders and politicians debate its scope.

In the meantime, in some parts of Bangkok, a distinct smell wafts through the air and it seems easier to get a joint than a Pad Thai.

Popular night-life strips like the famous Khao San Road now have cannabis shops of all shapes and sizes.

Soranut Masayavanich, or "Beer" as he is known, was an underground grower and dealer, but opened a licensed dispensary in the city's Sukhumvit area on the day the law changed.

When Foreign Correspondent visits his shop there is a steady stream of customers wanting different strengths, flavours and varieties.

A cannabis sign.

Shops selling cannabis have sprung up across Bangkok.(Reuters: Jorge Silva)

The flowers are displayed in matching glass jars on the counter and Beer's staff speak with the same flair as a sommelier offering advice on a selection of wine.

"It's like living the dream every day, I have to pinch myself," Beer says. "It's been a good ride, success. Business is booming."

Beer started out in an entirely different direction in life as a child actor in one of Thailand's most popular sitcoms, but after being caught with cannabis he says the stigma ended his acting career.

He started selling cannabis illegally, raking in thousands of dollars a month.

"Those were the golden days – good sales, we don't have competitors, we don't have too much rent, we just did it on our phones," Beer says.

"But I love [operating legally] more. This is my dream job. It's not business, it's personal."

A man with jars of marijuana.

Beer's shop sells a variety of dried cannabis flowers in different strengths and flavours, with sommelier-like customer service to help buyers make a selection.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

They weren't golden days for everyone – Beer avoided jail but thousands caught with cannabis were locked up in Thailand's notoriously crowded prisons.

For centuries, "ganja" used to grow wild in Thailand and was used in traditional medicine.

But in the 1970s, as the US embarked on its global "war on drugs", Thailand classified cannabis as a "Class 5" narcotic and imposed hefty fines and jail terms.

When it was decriminalised in June, more than 3,000 inmates were released from jail and their cannabis-related criminal records were deleted.

Some even got their stash back.

It was an unbelievable turnaround for a nation known for its aggressive zero tolerance policy.

Tossapon Martmuang and Peerapat Sajjabanyongkij were serving a seven-and-a-half-year jail sentence for transporting 355 kilograms of "brick weed" in northern Thailand. 

But when the law changed four months into their incarceration, they were let out.

Two men on a balcony.

Tossapon Martmuang and Peerapat Sajjabanyongkij were jailed for transporting 355 kilograms of cannabis. Months later, they were released when it was decriminalised.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

"It feels like winning the lottery, better than the first prize in the lottery," Mr Tossapon says.

At the time of their arrest, police officers had paraded them in front of the media and posed for photographs with the large haul they had seized.

It was an entirely different mood on their release – the media waited outside jails to capture happy family reunions and politicians were there offering congratulations while trying to shore up votes for next year's elections.


A cash crop with politics at its root

Thailand's astonishing 180-degree turn on cannabis is, after all, fundamentally political.

It was the current public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, who changed the game by promising to put the plant back in the hands of the people.

Government-controlled medicinal cannabis had already been legal for four years, but at the last election in 2019 his party's signature policy was that people could grow and use the plant at home as medicine.

For farmers, it would be a new cash crop.

A man at a podium.

Thailand's public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul harnessed popular support for cannabis decriminalisation for political advantage in the last election.(Reuters: Jorge Silva)

The policy proved a handy vote winner – Mr Anutin's party Bhumjaithai became the second biggest in the ruling coalition.

"I think [cannabis was] the thing that stuck out most, some people even called my party the cannabis party," Mr Anutin says.

"All the studies that we were given clearly stated that if we used cannabis plants in the correct way, it would create lots of opportunities, not only [for] revenue, but also [for] the better health of people."

The medicinal cannabis industry, which began in 2018, has flourished under Anutin and he expects it to be worth billions of dollars to the Thai economy in the years to come.

"You can make revenue out of every part of this tree," he says. "So the first beneficiary will clearly be those farmers and people in the farming business."

Thai farmers are having mixed success with the new cash crop.

Two women in front of cannabis plants.

Sisters Jomkwan and Jomsuda Nirundorn run a successful cannabis farm in north-eastern Thailand.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

Sisters Jomkwan and Jomsuda Nirundorn's farm in north-east Thailand was known for its Japanese melons, then four years ago they pivoted to cannabis.

Extroverted and smiley, the two young "ganja-preneurs" began by supplying plants high in the medicinal chemical CBD to a local hospital, before recently branching out to THC plants for the recreational market.

"It started with 612 seeds and they all failed, then the second [lot] failed," Jomkwan says, rolling her eyes and giggling.

It was a case of third time lucky.

Within a year they had recouped their $80,000 set up costs and had expanded to grow cannabis in 12 greenhouses with the help of 18 full-time staff.

A square metre of melons used to earn them about $20, but cannabis fetches close to $1,000.

"So I think it's better than melons, right?" Jomsuda says with a smile.

Out on the land though, others are finding growing cannabis harder than they expected.

The Thai government handed out one million free cannabis seedlings the week cannabis was decriminalised, but for rice farmer Pongsak Maneethun, the dream was over in no time.

"We tried to grow it, we planted the seedling, then when they grew we put them into the soil, but later they withered and died," Mr Pongsak says.

Workers in a cannabis farm.

Jomkwan and Jomsuda Nirundorn's cannabis farm now employs 18 full-time staff.(Reuters: Chalinee Thirasupa)

He adds that neither the hot Thailand weather nor the soil in his province in the country's east are suitable for growing cannabis.

"People who have money will want to join this experiment … but grassroots people like us, we wouldn't dare to invest, to take such a risk," he says.

"And people are still scared of [cannabis] because it was a narcotic drug – they are afraid their children or grandchildren will use it and get addicted."


Fears for young people and 'ganja' culture

Lots of people are worried about children. A national survey found the majority of Thais don't want them getting into "ganja" culture.

The Dean of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Medicine, Dr Chanchai Sittipunt, says there is data suggesting cannabis use among young people can have long-term cognitive effects.

"Even if you are a grown-up man, if you use it long term, I still believe that there might [be] some side effects in the future," Dr Chanchai says.

More than 1,000 Thai doctors have petitioned the government to suspend cannabis decriminalisation until the new law is finalised by the parliament.

They are in favour of doctor-prescribed medicinal cannabis, but not the current situation that has led to unregulated recreational use.

A man with a joint.

A tourist smokes a joint at a Koh Samui resort, where it's now legal to smoke cannabis on private property.(Foreign Correspondent: Craig Hansen ACS)

Dr Chanchai says there is no doubt the world is watching how Thailand's experience with cannabis legalisation unfolds and whether it becomes the Amsterdam of Asia.

"I don't want Thailand to be thought of as that destination, we don't want to be the cannabis haven of the world," Dr Chanchai says.

Public health minister Anutin says his policy "doesn't advocate recreational cannabis use" and the existing public health law is strong enough to clamp down on smoking in public.

"Thailand's cannabis policy focuses on medical and health purposes and nothing else," he says.

And he has this warning for foreign tourists: "News that it's the land of free cannabis, that you can smoke freely everywhere on our soil, that is fake news and we don't welcome those kind of tourists".

Whether the new legislation should ban recreational use entirely, as opposed to just discouraging it, is the question Thailand's politicians are still grappling with.

"We can't go back now, they have to regulate it, they can't make it illegal," Ms Chopaka says.

The genie is out of the bottle, she says.

"That bottle is broken. It's gone."

Did you know

1. One hectare of cannabis releases as much oxygen as 25 hectares of forest. Cannabis grows in 4 months and trees grow in 20-50 years.

2. From one hectare of cannabis, you get the same amount of paper as 4 hectares of forest.

3. Trees make recyclable paper 3 times while hemp makes recyclable paper 8 times. Hemp paper is the best and most durable.

5. Hemp plants are a radiation trap. Cannabis plantations purify the air.

6. Hemp can be grown anywhere in the world, it needs very little water. Furthermore, because it can defend itself against parasites, it doesn't need pesticides.

7. Hemp textiles outperform even linen products in their properties.

8. Hemp is an ideal plant for the production of edges, ropes, bags, shoes, hats...

9. Cannabis is banned in Bulgaria. But technical cannabis does not contain a drug and can be grown freely.

10. The protein value of cannabis seeds is very high and two fatty acids contained in it cannot be found anywhere else in nature.

11. Growing cannabis is much cheaper than soy.

12. Animals that eat cannabis don't need hormone supplements.

13. All plastic products can be made from hemp, hemp plastic is environmentally friendly and fully biodegradable.

14. Hemp can also be used for thermal insulation of buildings, it is durable, cheap and flexible.

15. Hemp soaps and hemp cosmetics do not pollute water, so they are completely environmentally friendly.

And about the benefits of medical cannabis in the treatment of many different conditions, one more time
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