The highs and lows of liberalising weed

The highs and lows of liberalising weed

Special report: Cannabis tourism has been a huge boost to the economy since June 2022. But the lack of regulation is causing headaches

A foreigner browses cannabis buds to smoke at a dispensary in Chiang Mai's downtown tourist district near Tha Phae Gate. (Photo: Madelyn Swanson)
A foreigner browses cannabis buds to smoke at a dispensary in Chiang Mai's downtown tourist district near Tha Phae Gate. (Photo: Madelyn Swanson)

A boom in cannabis businesses has helped jolt the tourism industry back to life, as travellers flock to Thailand for marijuana tourism.

Cannabis has been delisted from the Category 5 list of narcotics in the Royal Gazette since June 9, 2022, allowing people to legally cultivate and use cannabis as a household herb for medicinal purposes.

However, decriminalisation preceded passage of the legislation needed to control and regulate cannabis, which has led to a free-for-all in the industry as businesses, many owned by foreigners, invest in cannabis outlets and users buy weed with little or any medical or consumer guidance.

Parliament has yet to pass the cannabis bill, which has led to questions over how far cannabis liberalisation has actually come.

For some, it also raises questions about the government's real motives in pushing for the change: medical use or even medical tourism, as it claims, or a sly commercial positioning of the country as a regional cannabis hub, as some fear.

Rise of the weed tourist

As a result of the legal vacuum resulting from a lack of cannabis control laws, the cannabis market is thriving as more than 3,000 cannabis businesses, ranging from medicinal cannabis products, cannabis-infused food and beverages, to cannabis cafés and dispensaries that sell cannabis buds for recreational use, have sprung up all across the country, according to

A vendor fills rolled paper with ground cannabis buds for a customer in a cannabis shop in Bangkok. (Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe)

Chiang Mai finds itself at the centre of flourishing cannabis businesses, with tourist districts boasting many cannabis cafés and dispensaries.

Data from shows that over 220 cannabis businesses are now operating in Chiang Mai. The northern city is gaining the title of one of the world's top marijuana tourism destinations.

While doctors and the parents of young adolescents may view the upsurge of recreational cannabis with some concern, the industry as well as the overall tourism sector are delighted with the current free-for-all approach.

"As the local economy depends heavily on tourism, the province suffered badly from Covid lockdowns during the pandemic. So, we are happy to see Chiang Mai bustling with tourists again," said Nutimon Panyayao, who works at Bia.Ba by Artemis 98 Dispensary.

The dispensary is often busy with international customers, with the legalisation of cannabis one of the factors bringing them back to Chiang Mai.

"About 90% of our customers are foreign tourists. They are from Europe, the US, China, Japan and even Russia. They are not only buying weed at our store, but they are also spending at hotels and restaurants. That trickles down to local businesses in Chiang Mai," she said.

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports says Chiang Mai welcomed 1.09 million international visitors last year, a big jump on the previous year's figure of 30,998. They contributed about 9.6 billion baht of tourism income to the province.

Apart from the economic benefits, she said cannabis legalisation also allows growers, who once grew cannabis on the sly, to bring their operation into the open and earn a substantial and lawful income from the plant.

Unclear regulations

However, not all is sweet for the cannabis industry, as Warit Nimmanahaeminda, the founder and managing director of Artemis 98 Company Limited, says a lack of clarity on cannabis control poses problems for cannabis businesses and risks undermining the industry in the long run.

Although legalisation gives growers the chance to start their own business, there is still no sign that parliament will pass the cannabis and hemp bill, which will be the main legal tool for regulating the use of cannabis.

He said entrepreneurs are troubled by confusion over law enforcement and a lack of protection offered by the law.

"In the absence of clear regulations and guidelines, there are problems with registering and regulating cannabis businesses, as officers have trouble interpreting and enforcing the rules," Mr Warit said.

The lack of clarity also opens up a loophole for foreign investors to open cannabis ventures in Thailand. They have not been slow to take advantage of the opportunity, with most cannabis businesses in downtown Chiang Mai owned by foreigners, he said.

"Unless there is a law to protect local growers, these foreign investors, who are mostly well-funded and experienced business operators from global cannabis hubs such as Amsterdam or California, can outcompete local businesses and come to dominate Thailand's cannabis industry," he said.

Apart from that, a lack of price regulation and quality control exposes consumers to the risks of buying tainted or overpriced products.

"Cannabis needs to be grown organically without pesticide, or the produce will be contaminated with leftover chemical residue, which can be harmful," he said.

He suggests a tracking system to allow consumers to trace back the origin of the product as a way to ensure the quality and safety of cannabis products.

Hidden agenda

Even as the sprouting of cannabis businesses contributes to the tourism rebound and helps improve the economy in major tourist cities, Dr Supat Hasuwannakit, head of the Rural Doctor Society, warns the free-for-all approach will cause more harm than good.

A former supporter of cannabis legalisation and now a critic of Bhumjaithai Party's cannabis liberalisation policy, Dr Supat said cannabis policy has diverged from the initial goal of medical cannabis promotion, as it now focuses on the business angle.

"Contrary to the original intention of the policy that was aimed to allow the cultivation and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, this legal reform has also opened loopholes for the sale and use of cannabis for recreational purposes, as the Public Health Ministry led by Bhumjaithai Party passed the law to decriminalise cannabis without any legislation in place to regulate it," he said.

As a result, people are now exposed to the health risks of inappropriate and irresponsible cannabis use. They can easily access cannabis buds and other cannabis products from local stores without any medical guidance.

A recent survey by the Psychiatrist Association of Thailand also showed the number of people who use cannabis for recreation has skyrocketed since decriminalisation. More than 11 million people were using cannabis recreationally last year, up from 1.89 million in 2021.

"Even though some people can smoke weed and still be fine, for many people, consuming cannabis can cause adverse side effects, especially in adolescents and vulnerable groups who have underlying mental health issues.

The substances in cannabis can impede brain development in youth and aggravate mental problems," Dr Supat said.

"Since some business groups are clearly enjoying substantial benefits from this flawed cannabis legalisation, I can't help but wonder why Bhumjaithai pushed forward the decriminalisation in such a hurry even before the drafting of the cannabis bill was completed."

He said cannabis legalisation should be done step-by-step, starting with educating people on how to use cannabis safely, followed by clear and concise rules on regulating cannabis businesses and use.

All of this should have been in place before legalisation went ahead rather than the other way around.

"The key to success of cannabis legalisation is to balance liberty and control. I admit that liberalising recreational cannabis can be beneficial for some places, but considering the plant's strong effects on health, we should also strictly regulate its distribution and use to ensure public health safety," he said.

This story was produced with support from the Round Earth Media programme of the International Women's Media Foundation. Reporting contributed by Anab Muqtar.

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