‘Very good for tourists’: Thailand aims for high season with U-turn on cannabis

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA</span>
Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA

A distinctive sweet smell wafts through Fisherman’s Village night market on the Thai island of Koh Samui, drifting up between the sticky mango rice stalls and bucket cocktail vans. The Samui Grower cannabis stall is doing swift business tonight. A table is laid with glass jars, each displaying a different flowering green bud, with labels saying things like ‘‘Road Dawg’ hybrid THC25% 850TBH/gram”.

Elsewhere on the island, at Chi beach club, tourists lie on couches puffing ready-rolled joints and munching pizzas topped with green cannabis leaves. On Instagram, the Green Shop Samui offers a marijuana menu of fantastically named buds: Truffle Cream, Banana Kush and Sour Diesel, alongside hemp cookies and cannabis herbal soap.

Anyone familiar with Thailand’s notoriously hardline attitude towards recreational drug use might watch this and wonder if they’ve had too much to smoke. A country where narcotics offences have attracted the death sentence, and being caught with a joint at a full moon party has landed tourists in the infamous Bangkok Hilton, now appears to have done an about-face. In an apparent bid to attract tourists in the post-Covid slump, the Thai government decriminalised cannabis last month. Koh Samui’s streets are already dotted with dispensaries with names such as Mr Cannabis, and tourists tell of being offered marijuana openly at the reception of their hotel. Yet the laws around cannabis are far more blurred than this “pot paradise” suggests.

Koh Samui’s streets are already dotted with dispensaries with names such as Mr Cannabis

On 9 June, the Thai government removed cannabis and hemp plants from its banned narcotics list, leaving people in Thailand free to grow and sell it. The government line, however, is that production and consumption are permitted only for medical, not recreational use, and only of low-potency marijuana, containing less than 0.2% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the main hallucinogenic compound. Recreational use of cannabis is discouraged, with officials warning that anyone caught smoking cannabis in public could be charged for creating a public “smell nuisance” under the Public Health Act and face a 25,000 baht (£580) fine and three months’ imprisonment. But on the beaches of Koh Samui the law seems rather more open to interpretation.

A marijuana menu at a cannabis dispensary
A marijuana menu at a cannabis dispensary. Photograph: Matt Hunt/Rex

In Chi, a luxury beach club on Samui’s Bang Rak serving magnums of Bollinger and fine French wines, owner Carl Lamb offers not just a CBD-infused menu but also openly sells high-potency cannabis in grams and ready-rolled joints.

Lamb, who originally tried marijuana medicinally for his own digestive issues, worked with a university in Chiang Mai to grow medicinal cannabis for the CBD-infused menu Chi serves: CBD berry lemonade, Hempus Maxiumus cocktails and CBD Pad Kra Pow. When the drug was decriminalised, Lamb took that as permission to start selling “real” joints in his bar.

“At first, I just did it as a bit of a buzz and had a few grams in the box,” he grins, producing a large black cigar box stocked with different strains of cannabis – ranging from 500baht (£12.50) a gram for BlueBerry Haze to 1,000 baht (£23) a gram for Lemonade.

Now Chi sells 100g a day. “We get people buying it from 10am until we close,” Lamb says. “It’s been really eye-opening the range of people wanting to try it.” He serves parents curious to have a puff while their kids play in the pool, wealthy individuals wanting ready-rolled joints to take away, and tourists purchasing it straight off the plane. As Lamb understands it, the law only prohibits him from selling to under 25s or pregnant women “and if anyone complains about the smell I have to shut it down”.

“We’ve started getting phone calls from all over the world asking, ‘Is it really true you can smoke cannabis in Thailand and it’s legal?’ We already know it’s attracting more tourists – people are booking for Christmas.”

The impact of Covid on the island has been “devastating”, Lamb says. “The decriminalisation of cannabis is, without a shadow of a doubt, having a huge positive impact. You can now come here and lie on a beach in Asia at Christmas and smoke weed. Who’s not coming?”

We already know it’s attracting more tourists – people are booking for Christmas

Carl Lamb, Chi beach club

The Thai man operating the Samui Grower cannabis stall in the market is equally enthusiastic. “Very good for tourists,” he says, when I ask him how trade is. “Very good. Thai people like it. We make money.” Is it legal? I ask. “Yes, yes,” he nods. Can I buy it and smoke it on the beach? “Yes good.”

By contrast, the Green Shop in Samui, opening next week, tells me they’ll issue warnings to customers so they know not to smoke in public. No wonder tourists are confused.

Thailand celebrates the legalisation of marijuana in June
Thailand celebrates the legalisation of marijuana in June. Photograph: Andre Malerba/Rex

I find Morris, a 45-year-old Irish father, buying cannabis in the market. “I didn’t realise it was this legal now,” he says. Does he know the law? “I know I can’t get arrested with it, but I haven’t looked into it that much,” he admits. “I won’t smoke on the beach if there are other families around, but me and my wife might smoke it back at the hotel.”

Others tourists are more relaxed. Nina tells me at her hotel in Chiang Mai, north Thailand, that cannabis is sold at reception. “I smoke it anyway,” she shrugs. “I wouldn’t really notice if it was legal or not.”

“Nobody understands the law now. It’s a big mess – even the police don’t understand it,” one cannabis seller, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me. Operating under the radar, delivering cannabis to “farang” tourists, with hotel concierges organising deliveries, he says: “I take care for the moment, because the law is not clear. They [tourists] don’t know anything about the laws. They don’t know they cannot smoke in public. Although it’s very dangerous to smoke in public”.

They [tourists] don’t know anything about the laws. They don’t know they cannot smoke in public

Cannabis seller, Koh Samui

At Chi, 75-year-old American Linda, openly puffing a joint, feels relaxed about the vagary of the law. “I am not worried about the grey area in Thailand. Just be respectful when you are smoking,” she says. She feels sharing a joint at Chi “has a sort of boutique feel, like buying a good wine for your friends”.

The real question now is what happens next. Can a country which once had some of the most stringent drug laws in the world, really adapt to some of the most relaxed?