Cannabis in Asia: a tale of two paths

jars of cannabis in bangkok cannabis in asia

In the last three weeks, Singaporean authorities have executed two men for separate cannabis trafficking cases. On Wednesday, April 26, authorities in Singapore executed 46-year-old Tangaraju Suppiah by hanging for allegedly coordinating the trafficking of 1 kilogram of cannabis that he never actually had in his possession at any time. On May 17th, Singaporean courts ordered another execution of a currently unidentified Malay Singaporean national for trafficking 1.5 kilograms of cannabis. 

Governments across Southeast Asia have long been notoriously brutal and authoritarian when it comes to meting out capital punishment for drug related offenses, including cannabis trafficking. Beyond Singapore, the death sentence for cannabis trafficking among ASEAN nations is still currently administered in Indonesia, as well as China, which leads all countries worldwide in administering capital punishment.

Thailand used to be one such country where cannabis-related offenses came with stiff penalties up to and including capital punishment. Despite hundreds or even thousands of years of traditional cannabis use as medicine and food in Thai culture, the cultivation, possession, distribution, and trafficking of the plant was punishable by the same types of heavy handed penalties that are still being meted out in Singapore and elsewhere until recently. 

In 2018, Thai authorities changed course and established medical access to cannabis for adults. As of June 9th, 2022, a recreational cannabis market has been established in Thailand, and I recently visited to participate in this booming green economy as a cannabis tourist. 

Stoners Without Borders

The Thai cannabis market proof of concept is a huge step forward towards a more sensible and humane drug policy in the ASEAN region, where cannabis has been used traditionally by hill tribes and indigenous cultures such as the Khmer in Cambodia and Buddhist monks in China for thousands of years. 

In Bangkok alone, there are over 1,000 cannabis dispensaries and related stores, as well as many more ‘under the table’ storefronts and vendors. There is a booming gray market with many storefronts and street cart vendors operating openly and selling higher-THC strains and branded edibles. 

I visited around a dozen dispensaries and purchased cannabis products in locations varying from a kiosk at the entrance to a crowded mall, in storefronts on a busy tourist walking street, at food stalls located in unassuming suburban neighborhoods, and even in 711 – though the latter was a CBD product. 

The numerous dispensaries that I came across mainly sold flower, with a couple of them offering edibles that were very low potency. The gummies I found typically had a dose range of 1.6 to 2 mg THC per gummy, as opposed to the 5 to 10 mg+ per gummy that one often sees at legal dispensaries in the United States. The unlicensed vendors were the only ones selling edibles with stronger potencies, such as 100 mg cookies and brownies. 

Major international cannabis brands have opened up shop across Thailand, signaling an opportunity for the Thai market to integrate into the global cannabis cultural fabric alongside highly established international brands like Cookies while also maintaining its own homegrown identity. 

premium cannabis sop in pattaya cannabis in asia
Signs for Premium Cannabis in Pattaya, Thailand Photo: Dennis Walker

420 Friendly?

The laws around cannabis consumption are also largely out of sync with the push towards a more tolerant approach to cannabis in Thai society. It’s illegal to smoke in the street, and most dispensaries likewise don’t allow consumption. Many hotels and condos forbid cannabis smoking, leaving the main options for consumption to be select dispensaries and lenient bars as well as the good old-fashioned clandestine approach in alleyways and on open rooftops. 

Many businesses have taken advantage of the cannabis tourism potential by offering infused massages and elevated dining experiences, though these publicly advertised options usually indicate that it’s in fact, CBD that is used.

Cannabis use in Thailand has been omnipresent despite criminalization, as any backpacker or rural Thai farming family can tell you. The stigma around the plant still lingers across the urban elite and the Thai middle class, but the move towards establishing a legal market is a huge step in the right direction.

As competing governmental and societal attitudes about cannabis and drug use continue to shape drug policy in Southeast Asia and beyond, demonstrating the social benefit and environmental sustainability of a legitimate and legal cannabis market falls upon all of us in the global cannabis community as a moral duty to uphold. 

If we want a future in which cannabis entrepreneurship is rewarded as the gainful and responsible enterprise it is instead of being punished as an executable offense, then we must demonstrate through direct and clear action that integrating cannabis into mainstream society and reforming drug policy will immediately and indefinitely benefit society at large.

We’ve entered an era where governments around the world are opting to either legalize, regulate, and tax cannabis to the tune of billions of dollars, or double down on senseless and inhumane prohibition that creates the conditions for an illicit market and a continued war on drugs (read: war on people). 

Preaching prohibition and punitively responding to those who don’t abide by draconian policy doesn’t work for the same reasons preaching abstinence as a viable form of sexual education doesn’t work; people are going to get stoned regardless of the risk involved, and people are going to have sex regardless of the social conventions in place.

Opportunity knocks

The rescheduling of cannabis creates an opportunity for a multi-billion dollar market to come under government control, and for consumers to be protected in the process. Even when I lived in Saudi Arabia, where cannabis crimes are also technically punishable by death, the unregulated hash market had completely saturated “polite society”. Absolutely everyone had hash, and nobody seemed to care that they were breaking ignoble statutes. 

The broader benefits of the cannabis plant generally also come into the purview of the general public aftermarket opportunities open up. In Thailand, there are numerous CBD products, services, and experiences that focus on the non-psychoactive component of cannabis. High-end CBD-infused dining experiences, luxury CBD massages, and a CBD shop in an airplane are just a few of many such experiences that people in Thailand can now legally access alongside the THC-possessing strains on offer in tightly regulated government-approved shops. 

a cannabis shop in pattaya cannabis in asia
Tiger Roller canabis shop in Pattaya, Thailand Photo: Dennis Walker

A sensible ‘middle path’ for legal cannabis use is demonstrated at the Plantopia Complex on Khao San Road, a popular tourist haunt that has a long history as a cannabis and nightlife hotspot. 

At Plantopia, around a dozen cannabis storefronts sell local and international strains, branded products, and apparel in an air-conditioned food court-style promenade that is well-lit and secure. Signs plastered to the wall call upon potential customers to present their passports or National IDs at the point of sale, while other signs indicate a 2,000 baht ($60) fine for vomiting in the complex. 

The scene at Plantopia was one of mellow, high-vibe cannabis tourism bliss: Around 40 people lounged in the consumption area, with a seemingly equal proportion of groups of young Thai people alongside a cosmopolitan demographic of obviously foreign cannabis tourists. It looked like a success for everyone involved, up to and including the business and government interests who maintained control over this operation. 

As more than 40 countries around the world have adopted some measure of legal cannabis access either through recreational or medical avenues, governments around the world must recognize the clarion call that people of all creeds, religious backgrounds, and political affiliations are issuing: legalize and regulate cannabis, and stop executing and incarcerating people for cannabis entrepreneurship when you can just as well reward them and reap more collective benefit for doing so. 

I felt completely safe and in good company with all of the numerous cannabis vendors and consumers that I crossed paths with throughout my two weeks in Thailand. At no point did I witness any untoward behavior, but instead found a chilled-out and friendly bunch who pose absolutely no threat to civil society. 

I long for a future where other governments across Asia and the rest of the world opt for a more sensible policy around cannabis, and am thankful that Thai authorities have pioneered a legal adult-use cannabis market as a proof of concept that viable safe and viable alternatives to the status quo are already successfully being implemented. 

This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The statements within do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GreenState, Hearst, or its subsidiaries. The author is solely responsible for the content.

dennis walker

Dennis Walker is a satirist and journalist who is primarily known as the founder and host of Mycopreneur Podcast. He writes and produces content for numerous platforms in the cannabis and psychedelic space and loves learning about and participating in cannabis culture around the world.