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Is weed still legal in Thailand? Here’s what tourists need to know as government u-turns

Is weed still legal in Thailand? Here’s what tourists need to know as government u-turns

Dozens of pro-cannabis advocates gathered at Thailand’s health ministry on Thursday 16 May to oppose the government’s plan to relist the plant as a narcotic, two years after it was decriminalised.

The rally came after Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said earlier this month that he would like legalisation to be reversed by the end of this year. 

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Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalise cannabis in 2022 for medical purposes, but in practice the market appears virtually unregulated, leading to public backlash and concerns over misuse and crime.

Neon weed signs have become ubiquitous in Bangkok’s busy tourist areas, with dispensaries cropping up on every corner. Hundreds of food and drink vendors advertise cannabis-infused menus.

This could all change under the PM’s proposals to strictly regulate marijuana use and restrict it for medicinal purposes.

Why are Thailand’s cannabis rules changing so soon?

Following the general election in May last year, Thailand has been under new leadership since September.

The conservative coalition government headed by the Pheu Thai Party is behind the calls for a crackdown on cannabis, which has been poorly regulated since its legalisation.

Pheu Thai campaigned on banning the recreational use of marijuana, saying it poses health risks and could cause substance abuse issues among young people.

In a recent post on X calling for the plant to be relisted, Thavisin reiterated this stance, saying «Drugs are a problem that destroys the future of the nation.»

Anutin Charnvirakul, the former Health Minister who oversaw the drug’s legalisation in the previous military-run government, has now risen the ranks to Deputy Prime Minister. He is the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, part of the new government coalition.

When backing the legalisation of marijuana in 2022, he said it would ease overcrowding in Thailand’s prisons and help boost the rural economy.

On the day of legalisation, more than 3,000 inmates held on cannabis charges were released. Within the year, the country’s weed industry was worth 28 billion Thai baht (€728 million) and by 2030 it was projected to reach 336 billion baht (€8.7 billion).

Anutin had promised that cannabis would be allowed only for medical use, but in practise the market was nearly unregulated.

The Health Ministry issued regulations that made cannabis a ‘controlled herb’ that requires a license for planting or selling, as well as banning online sales, sales to pregnant women and people under 20, and public smoking. But cannabis can be purchased easily by practically anyone at many unlicensed establishments or online.

Since cannabis was legalised, over 1.1 million Thai people have registered for licences to grow it and more than 6,000 weed dispensaries have popped up across the country, many with little quality control.

Thai media was quickly filled with reports of drug-fuelled violence and abuse, including among young people, who were not supposed to have access to the drug.

The Health Ministry reported a spike in people seeking treatment cannabis-related psychological issues, from more than 37,000 patients in 2022 to more than 63,000 in 2023. Other studies pointed to more young people using the drug.

With Thailand being the first country in Asia to legalise cannabis, it has also sparked a thriving weed tourism industry that many fear will be difficult to put a lid on.

In the 2023 election campaign, all major parties — including Bhumjaithai — promised to limit cannabis to medical use.

Protesters on Thursday agreed that cannabis should be properly regulated, but said rescheduling the plant as a narcotic would have a negative economic impact on those who have invested in the budding industry.

What is the punishment for cannabis use in Thailand?

Before weed was legalised in Thailand in June 2022, the country had some of the world’s harshest drug laws.

Possession of cannabis could land you in prison for up to 15 years, with the infamous Bang Kwang Central Prison — ironically nicknamed the Bangkok Hilton after an Australian TV series depicted its squalid, overcrowded conditions — acting as a major deterrent for tourists.

In March, Thailand’s Health Minister Chonlanan Srikaew said he had recommended a draft bill to the Cabinet banning the recreational use of marijuana and reclassifying it as a controlled substance. It is expected to be approved soon, after which it will be submitted to Thailand’s House of Representatives.

The draft law, which was circulated for public comment in January, would impose fines of up to 60,000 Thai baht (€1,560) for recreational use (defined as ‘entertainment or pleasure’), and prison sentences of up to a year. It would allow medical marijuana, but didn’t give details of how it would be controlled.

It also proposes fines of up to 100,000 baht (€2,600) for advertising or marketing cannabis for recreational use.

Farming without a licence could carry a one to three year prison sentence or fines from 20,000 to 300,000 baht (€520 to €7,780).

The rules for cannabis shops and home growing are not yet clear.

A flower bud of marijuana is prepared for customers at a Dutch passion shop in Bangkok, Thailand, June 2023.AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Can tourists still smoke weed in Thailand?

While Thailand waits on the outcome of the changes, weed shops are still open across Bangkok and beyond.

However, some rules are already in place to restrict the use of cannabis. Smoking or vaping in public places is not allowed. Causing a ‘public nuisance’ — including through the smell of weed — can lead to a 25,000 baht (€650) fine.

The details of what constitutes a ‘nuisance’ are murky and liable to exploitation by police. In Bangkok, officers have been known to blackmail and extort tourists caught on the wrong side of the law.

Cloud Nine cannabis store on Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok, displaying a ‘medical cannabis’ sign.Angela Symons

Extracts containing more than 0.2 per cent THC are still legally classed as narcotics but some shops sell stronger products regardless, which could land purchasers in trouble — unless they have obtained official permission for medical purposes.

Tourists have also been warned that cannabis is still illegal in neighbouring countries and must not be transported across borders. Singapore, which has some of the world’s strictest drug policies, can arrest citizens for using drugs outside of the country as if they were consumed at home.

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