Thailand Is Threatening Stricter Cannabis Laws. Weed Shops Are Confused

The first country in Asia to decriminalize weed might roll back its drug policy after just one year.
Cannabis Leaf Outside Shop
Photo: Jack Ramage

A radiant symbol has recently emerged among the bright neon signs lining Bangkok's streets: the weed leaf. After legalizing medical cannabis in 2018, last year Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalize weed. Today, people over 20 who are not pregnant or breastfeeding can consume it without punishment, although smoking in public spaces can still land you a hefty fine. That’s led to a boom in cannabis shops across the country. And with a dispensary practically now on every street corner, that neon green glow—and the subtle aroma of weed—has quickly woven its way into the city’s colorful tapestry. 


But after just a year, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin says he will be clamping down again on cannabis use in Thailand, with plans to limit its use to medical purposes within the next six months. But with over 6,000 cannabis shops already established across the country – many of which are small, local businesses – how will this impact the people of Thailand? 

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Chosee at The Dispensary

Chosee is a bartender at The Dispensary, a cannabis shop in the bustling heart of Bangkok’s Phron Phrong district where eight plants thrive in the storefront window while pedestrians pass by. Like other sellers, Chosee says he’s concerned that Thailand's tourism industry will take a hit—“around 90 percent” of his customer base is tourists. “We've seen a high influx of customers, especially during the peak seasons," he adds.

“It’s definitely helped tourism, bringing in so many people,” says Ethan, who works at the neighboring shop, Shaggy’s Bud’s. “We see a lot of tourists here, especially from across Asia—a lot of people from Japan or the Philippines. I believe they wouldn't come here as much if it weren’t for the relaxed weed policy. They already have the beaches. They have the food.”

The finer details of the Prime Minister's coming rollback in cannabis policy are yet to be announced. One possibility is that people would have to consult a medical professional before purchasing the flower. If that’s the case, says Mendel Menachem, a writer for the cannabis publication High Thailand, it might not actually impact tourists very much. “From a tourist’s point of view, I don’t think they’ll notice more difficulty,” he says optimistically. “The Thai authorities don’t want to shut the door on tourism.”

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Kitty at Chopaka Shop

Until there’s clarity, though, many sellers are unsure how the rollback might impact their livelihood. “How are they going to do that?” Kitty Chopaka, a cannabis activist and owner of Chopaka Shop, a dispensary situated in Asok, Bangkok, replies when asked whether she thinks the rules will be reversed. “I have a license. I have paid my fees. We don’t sell cannabis in this shop for recreation—we sell it as is. I’ve followed the rules to the T. I don’t see how it’s possible to enforce [a U-turn].”

Others worry how tighter regulations might benefit foreign investors—to the detriment of local growers who’ve so far been able to set up shop with little red tape. “I see amazing growers coming in from across the world, relocating here for business, but what's the spillover effect and the consequences of that?" says Note Nadon, from TEERA, a company that focuses on technologies and operations in South East Asia’s cannabis supply chain. Kitty describes it as “almost like colonization all over again.” She says, “People who are not traditional growers are coming into the space where we are traditional growers, trying to control how we do our cannabis, without looking at the ability and the consumers within our space.”

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement, particularly around over-saturation and quality control. “If you go to dispensaries in Canada or Amsterdam, all of their weed is tested. But in Thailand, none of that is required at the moment,” Nadon says. “The industry is so free, anyone can grow on the first floor and sell on the second floor – where is the duty of care for selling to customers?” Still, determining what counts as safe and unsafe, certified and uncertified, is another can of worms entirely. He expects that the current Health Minister will take a “more pragmatic approach” to regulation, but says it’s a task he “wouldn't envy anyone doing.”

Today, the cannabis space in Thailand at the moment is at a somewhat of a crossroads. “Corruption and nepotism are still big problems here,” Kitty says. “There’s still a lack of knowledge on the cannabis industry as a whole—not just in Thailand. It always goes back to the people. When you forget about the people, and they’re just a number, you end up with a legalization rollout like the United States which is… really screwy.”

For now, sellers are happy that decriminalization has handed control of the market to the local Thai people. The tourism business may be new, but cannabis has always existed here. “We’re moving something that was controlled by gangs and criminals, towards something that can can pay taxes and contribute to society,” Kitty concludes. 

Correction: This story originally said there were 4,000 cannabis shops in Thailand. That information is outdated—there are currently over 6,000.