Drugs in Thailand: Are They Legal?
First, let’s set the record straight: Recreation drugs in Thailand are not legal.
In fact, until January 2017, Thai law once allowed for the death penalty for anyone caught carrying, transporting, or using illegal drugs. Yes, you read that correctly—the death penalty!
The penalty for possession may include a lengthy term in Thai prison and steep fine. Numerous travelers sit behind bars in Thailand awaiting trials for drug possession. Sometimes they wait for years before they can even begin to serve their sentences. You can visit them and hear their stories during select hours when prisons open for foreign visitors.
Drug Use in Thailand
The use or possession of recreational drugs such as marijuana is illegal in Thailand. But as the sweet smoke wafts around you in some backpacker hostels, or you hear about bars in the islands that are famous for selling magic mushroom shakes, drug use seems casual and widespread. Access is easy. Sometimes psychedelic mushroom products are advertised in permanent, laminated menus in bars!
This double standard, along with rampant police corruption and sporadic enforcement, lead to a few travelers every year getting caught up in a legal system where they can’t even read what they are signing. Don’t let yourself end up in this situation.
More than 50 organized crime groups are estimated to be involved in moving drugs, particularly methamphetamines, into Thailand from neighboring Myanmar. The “Golden Triangle” where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet is second only to Afghanistan for production of opium poppies. Growing poppies is often a source of revenue for ethnic minority groups who are living in poverty.
Although cocaine, heroin, and other “hard” drugs can still be found, there has been a general shift to lifestyle and party drugs such as MDMA/ecstasy and crystal meth, appealing to the many travelers on holiday who have come to party in Thailand.
As you can imagine, pills often get cut with dangerous substances. Given the turnover of travelers, there’s little accountability for the quality of pills being distributed at parties. Don’t risk it. Just as traveler deaths due to drinking arak in Indonesia are kept quiet, the same happens to travelers who die in Thailand due to drug-related causes. Investigations almost never lead to action or reform.
Medical Marijuana in Thailand
Marijuana was used successfully as a natural medicine in Thailand for decades until it was criminalize in 1935.
In December 2018, the Thai government reinstated the use of marijuana for medical reasons; they were the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medicinal marijuana.
But just because the medical use of marijuana is legal again in Thailand doesn’t give tourists full license to bring a stash from their home countries. You’ll need to declare what you’re carrying to customs agents then fill out forms to get official approval. Proof of travel and a doctor’s prescription are required. Failing to get proper approval for carrying marijuana into Thailand could result in prosecution.
Magic Shakes and Happy Pizzas in Thailand
Natural products such as marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms have been available and popular with travelers in Thailand for decades. Both provide a needed means of bonus revenue in impoverished rural places.
Marijuana grows wild and is readily cultivated in the tropical climate, making it easy to find in Southeast Asia. Travelers often take advantage of its cheap availability. Some bars and guesthouses allow open smoking, although doing so is technically illegal.
Throughout parts of Southeast Asia, particularly along the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail, you’ll sometimes encounter signs or menus advertising “magic” or “happy” foods and drinks. “Magic” typically means that the shake or drink contains psychedelic mushrooms, and “happy” denotes marijuana.
“Magic” products are widely available in Pai (a popular tourist stop in Northern Thailand) and the Thai islands, particularly Koh Phangan.
What Happens If You Get Caught?
In 2001, Thailand made world headlines for publicly executing five people, four were drug smugglers, by firing squad.
Fortunately, drug laws aren’t quite as draconian as they were just a few years ago. Thailand’s last capital punishment execution took place in 2009, however, Thai prisons still contain travelers sentenced to life who are awaiting either help from their governments or a royal pardon. Per a 2018 estimate, around 70 percent of the sizable prison population in Thailand is being held on drug-related charges.
Depending on the quantity of the illegal substance that you are carrying (i.e., more than you can consume in one sitting), you can receive up to life in prison. The minimum sentence for carrying drugs across the border is 10 years in prison. Thai law allows for a 1 – 10 year sentence and $660 – $6,600 fine for possession.
If you are accused of trafficking drugs in Thailand, there is no guarantee that your embassy will intercede or be able to help. You’ll be on your own, possibly for years, waiting on a bureaucratic (and often convoluted) process to finally secure you a court date. Receiving a royal pardon or getting released could take a very long time.
Drugs in the Thai Islands
Drugs such as magic mushrooms and marijuana are relatively cheap and easy to buy in the Thai islands.
Despite being illegal, drugs can be purchased openly in a few bars on the island of Koh Phangan. Haad Rin, a peninsula of Koh Phangan, is famous for the monthly Full Moon Party where many travelers try psychedelic mushroom shakes to enhance the experience. Weekly electronic music parties at Haad Yuan are also sometimes enhanced with illegal substances.
Undercover, plain-clothed police—some are real, some are imitating police officers—do roam the Full Moon Parties to entrap travelers. They offer drugs for sale. These situations often result in the “officer” asking for a large bribe.
The Drug-Buying Scam in Thailand
More than a few backpackers have fallen victim to a simple-but-effective scam seen throughout Southeast Asia.
When a traveler asks in a bar to purchase marijuana, the bartender sells it to them openly as if it’s no big deal. He then immediately phones an associate who may or may not be a legitimate police officer.
The cop then shakes down the traveler on the beach, busts them with the weed they just purchased, and demands an expensive bribe. The weed is confiscated and given back to the barman who shares in the bribe profits. The same product is later resold to the next unsuspecting traveler!
Prescription Drugs in Thailand
Unlike in the United States where a prescription is required to obtain controlled medications, you can simply walk into many pharmacies throughout Thailand and purchase prescription “under the counter” drugs. The pills usually cost a fraction of the prices seen in the United States.
Although easy access can be handy for getting antibiotics or necessary medicines while traveling, some tourists abuse the open system and purchase large quantities of Valium (diazepam), sleeping pills, pain killers, Ritalin, Viagra, Adderall, and other popular drugs to take home.
Carrying these pills without a prescription or medical passport is illegal in Thailand.
Another concern is the proliferation of fakes at pharmacies in Thailand. Generic, low-quality strips of pills produced in India are sometimes substituted for popular choices such as Valium and sold at pharmacies in the Khao San Road area in Bangkok.
Drugs in Other Parts of Southeast Asia
Thailand’s stance on drugs may seem extreme, but their neighbors are just as strict!
Getting busted in Singapore is no laughing matter; they impose a mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers and have executed several foreigners over the years. Vietnam executed 85 people in 2007 for drug-related crimes.
Human Rights Watch reported that the ongoing “war on drugs” in the Philippines has been responsible for the deaths of more than 12,000 people since President Duterte began the campaign in 2016.
Despite the threat of death penalties or severe prison sentences throughout most of Southeast Asia, a few traveler hubs along the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail still openly advertise drugs without fear of repercussion.
Vang Vieng in Laos, famous for tubing on the river and a once-rambunctious party scene, has restaurants and bakeries preparing special consumables. The Gili Islands in Indonesia, particularly Gili Trawangan, have magic mushrooms listed openly on bar and restaurant menus. The riverside town of Kampot in Cambodia along with islands such as Koh Rong openly advertise “happy” products (usually pizzas) in restaurants.
Read about the harsh drug laws in Thailand and how to avoid trouble. Learn about recreation drugs, penalties, happy pizzas, and more.
Weed Could Once Get Locals Killed in Bangkok. Now Cannabis Culture Is Taking Off
“What about him? Do you think he looks like a stoner?”
In the kitchen of her little Bangkok indie movie theatre, Cinema Oasis, film director Ing K points at her friend Piak Lex Hip. She says they were “beach bums” together in Phuket in the ‘80s, when they could sunbathe naked without hassle. Today Piak is wearing a scraggy-baggy black t-shirt with a peace symbol design, his grin framed by a wispy white beard and mustache.
“I don’t like to judge by appearances,” I reply, as Piak carefully paints a ganja leaf shape onto a glass bong in gold paint. “But I’d hazard a guess that he smokes a fair bit of marijuana.” Piak nods and hands Ing the receptacle. “The Crystal Bong!” she exclaims, Hawaiian shirt swooshing as she raises the instrument skyward, like it’s a newborn Simba.
Stoner culture is slowly emerging from the shadows in Bangkok, despite lingering memories of the violent mid-2000s war against drugs waged by Thailand’s then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This year saw an abrupt change in laws: Ahead of the chaotic general election in March, the junta-appointed parliament announced a cynically-timed “gift” to the public: legalizing cannabis for medical use. Authorities recently showed off the capital’s first government-approved weed labs.
Many view this as a stride towards Thailand making cannabis fully legal. For now, though, blazing up on a Bangkok street will probably see you shaken down by police for a bribe or arrested. The reality for stoners in the capital is still far from the image projected by reggae-pumping hippie bars on Thai islands, where illegal spliffs are sold over the counter.
The Midwest Is About to Have a Weed Revolution
“That’s just a tourist thing,” Ing says, screwing up her nose like she’s sniffed a sewer. To galvanize the cannabis-smoking community in Bangkok, and to address what she sees as a lack of genuine stoner culture depicted in Thai media, she announced the Amazing Stoner Movie Fest (ASMF). Given that the former journalist has had her films banned before for offending the religious and political establishments, it was a bold move.
The event has become part of a noticeable shift in stoner visibility in Bangkok, sparked by the law change. In April, the fifth annual 420 Festival, hosted by pro-weed activist group Highland Network, took place in the city. Cannabis fans wore bong costumes and held massive inflatable doobies; it was the biggest incarnation of the festival yet. The following month, Highland opened a weed-themed café in Bangkok. Taking anything stronger than booze is not tolerated at the venue, but the medical-use law has given visitors confidence to at least talk about the drug openly.
Ing K, photo by Jack Taylor
Rattapon Sanrak, one of the Highland Café founders, got into weed when he was about 14, at the height of Thailand’s war on drugs. At that time, thousands of Thais suspected of being drug dealers were slain by law enforcement officials, and even casual drug users lived in fear of the bullet. “Many friends died,” says Rattapon, now 32. He laughs when I ask if his teenage self would believe that he would open a weed-themed café in the city where such deaths took place. But that’s Thailand’s muddled, coup-laden politics for you.
The Highland Café team views the newly relaxing attitudes as a rightful return to tradition. Chokwan ‘Kitty’ Chopaka, a co-founder, gestures towards a bamboo bong on the café counter and points out that the word “bong” originates from Thai language. Weed has been widely smoked in Thailand for centuries.
“The older generations grew up with it, seeing their parents and grandparents using it,” Kitty says. Chaiwat Banjai, 38, another co-founder, says that when he plucked up the courage to tell his military family that he smoked weed they told him that his grandmother was a dealer.
Piak Lex Hip, photo by Jack Taylor
Highland Café hosts meet-ups every Tuesday, when the public can ask questions about weed legislation and other information.. “There was no community, because everyone was so scared of what might happen,” Kitty says. Arun Avery, another of the cafe’s co-founders and a Highland campaigner, adds: “Now we get doctors, scientists… educated people who see the benefit of it.”
At the film festival, Sagar Singh Sivaraman says he’s noticed the shift. Born in Thailand to Indian parents, and having spent around half of his 22 years in Thailand, Sagar studies film production at Bangkok’s Mahidol University International College. His brilliantly tense short film 30k An Ounce, based on a friend’s experience, depicts a Bangkok police-checkpoint bust.
“No one could imagine a stoner movie festival a few years ago here,” he says, soaking in the sun on Cinema Oasis’ terrace. He adds that although smoking weed in public in Bangkok still gets you in trouble, cops’ underlying attitudes seem more understanding since the medical law was announced.
“Earlier, if they caught you with this shit they’d be like, ‘Don’t do this, it ruins your life’,” he says. “But more recently, when I got caught with my vape [without illegal drugs, just a vape] they told me, ‘Some people smoke weed – if you smoke it just keep it at home’. Also, a year or two ago every news channel was talking about marijuana, about medical benefits. Ten years ago they would have just talked about how it was ruining children’s lives.”
As the ASMF gets underway, there are no nightstick knocks on the cinema doors. In one short film a high school student placates zombies by blowing marijuana smoke in their decomposing faces. Reefer Madness, the ridiculous 1930s U.S. anti-marijuana film, is joyously received as a comedy. Another lo-fi short, from Ramkhamhaeng University student Boonyarith Intharakopit, shows a stoner blasting a bamboo bong.
In Intharakopit’s film, the main character does little more than get baked, eat convenience store snacks and saunter around Bangkok. As an aside to a conservative Thai film culture in which drug use is rarely shown, mundanity was the young director’s aim. “It’s not about horrible or crazy experiences,” he says after his film is screened. A small red pipe attached to his necklace gently swings as he talks. “I just feel good that I can speak about the issue that people haven’t wanted to talk about.”
Ing shares his sentiment. “I just want to see what a Thai stoner movie looks like. We see drinking movies, surfing films… all these cultures, but what about ours? There are no Thai films where you see yourself on screen.”
photo by Jack Taylor
Well, now there are. Cheers erupt in the cinema as Piak hands The Crystal Bong and 5,000 baht ($160) to Sagar, for 30k An Ounce. The main Golden Ganja prize and $1,000 goes to Christian Linaban, a director from the Philippines who made SUPERPSYCHOCEBU, a stoner odyssey about a student on a quest for a mythical strain of dope. “No other festival would take my film,” says Christian. “Posting on Facebook today, my stoner friends feel represented, finally.”
The event feels like an important step from the smoky shadows for Bangkok stoner culture, with ripples reaching as far as the Philippines—a country currently going through its own deadly “war on drugs” that presumably won’t be hosting its own weed-related movie festival any time soon. Ing shows caution amid the congratulations. “We’re really pushing it, having this festival. Usually the first person over the wall gets shot.”
She leads Christian and Sagar outside to pick apart each other’s films and the buffet, their prize envelopes safely stashed in their pockets. One wonders what they’ll spend all that cash on.
Follow writer Jamie Fullerton on Twitter. Follow photographer Jack Taylor on Instagram.
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With marijuana legalized for medical use in Thailand, Bangkok’s stoners are emerging from the underground.