If you’ve heard that cannabis is now fully legal in Thailand, you’re sort of right, sort of wrong.
Yes, it’s true that Thailand has become the first Asian country to officially decriminalize the sacred herb and allow residents to grow and sell their own cannabis products, primarily for medical needs. The country previously allowed the sale of medical cannabis in 2018.
This latest move makes it easier and safer for customers seeking health and wellness remedies to legally acquire and possess cannabis, as well as for restaurants to put it in food and drinks without facing any legal risks.
But it’s also true that you are not allowed to light up anywhere or anytime you want: public smoking can lead to a fine of 25,000 Thai baht, about $780 USD, and/or up to three months in jail. Non-medical use is also discouraged.
Extracted products like oil available for sale also can’t contain more than 0.2 percent of THC, the main natural compound that causes temporary physical and mental changes when smoked or eaten. So, this means people seeking legendary high-potency Thai sticks and other ganja products, at least legally, may be disappointed.
Government officials have made it clear that the country’s reversal of previous strict cannabis laws is more for health and commerce reasons, and they require that anyone who wants to grow and sell their own products legally – up to six plants per person — must register for a permit.
Patients are also encouraged to go to licensed clinics to acquire their cannabis.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told NPR that the government is initially treading lightly with these new policies, and he prefers that citizens first demonstrate better awareness and cooperation in this new legal marketplace, rather than the country trying to create a regimented, strict approach and levying penalties for those who abuse these new privileges.
Charnvirakul also emphasizes that, if the country performs well with these new changes, it could mean more reforms and permissiveness toward cannabis in the future, such as more laws allowing recreational use. If there are abuses, he said the Public Health Ministry can easily bring back earlier restrictions.
The announcement of decriminalization in June included the info that more than 1 million cannabis seedlings were going to be given away nationwide to residents interested in exploring the benefits of growing the plant for health or financial reasons.
This news was accompanied by the word that more than 4,000 people now in jail for cannabis crimes will be released, and any money and cannabis that was confiscated from them will be returned.
All of this reverses a general push against the plant that has been in place to some degree for nearly a century.
The country has good natural growing conditions for the plant, and many believe it was brought from India long ago, where it thrived in the tropical climate. It was used ritually, in food, and for hemp products.
But as part of the international prohibitions led by the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, it joined many other countries from around the world in making the exporting of cannabis illegal to countries where the plant is illegal. However, an underground marketplace never quite went away.
Since then, Thailand has generally followed the U.S policies and trade agreements in terms of cracking down on cannabis production and sales.
However, unlike the U.S., which continues to classify cannabis in the same highly dangerous category as heroin and LSD (no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse), Thailand puts the plant in the ‘least serious’ category that includes natural kratom leaves and psychedelic mushrooms.
Still, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency maintains active offices in Bangkok and major cities, which it has maintained since the Vietnam War.
For many soldiers in this war, Thailand was a popular place to take leave, and strong cannabis was considered of the country’s luxurious local offerings. Soldiers returning from the war also brought back seeds and plants from some of the stronger Asian strains, which accelerated the country’s underground cannabis activity.
Interestingly, in 2002, the country’s Prime Minister even suggested legalizing cannabis and other less dangerous narcotics, so more resources could be put into combatting more serious threats like methamphetamine and heroin. His proposal failed but still emphasized that cannabis, while acknowledged as illegal, rarely received the full attention of local law enforcement.
In fact, whatever laws say, it remains popular in folk medicine and in recipes. Some restaurants have learned to use parts of the plants that aren’t psychoactive, and hemp remains a useful textile.
With the approval of decriminalization, Thailand joins Canada, Mexico, Georgia and four other countries that permit cannabis to some degree at a national level, although Thai officials stress that medical cannabis must be a prime focus rather than full adult-use/recreational.
Officials hope that by making cannabis more accessible for health-focused consumers, it could lead to an increase in tourism as well as stimulate local agricultural businesses to get involved in a new potentially lucrative commodity.
They envision more visitors to the country – and even Thai tourists — seeking local strains, as well as food fans visiting restaurants and cafes to sample infused cannabis in local cuisine, especially curry dishes.
At the same time, releasing those serving time and not making further arrests could reduce the populations of already-overcrowded prisons.
Since other countries in the region still have strict cannabis laws in place, Thailand’s openness could be a draw for those seeking cannabis – no fear of getting caught, provided you don’t partake in public, and don’t try to take it back home if you live in a country or state where strict laws are in place.