Choco Gonzales, owner of the House of Chronic marijuana dispensary in Bangkok, smokes a joint. (Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)
Thai cannabis companies operate in a legal no man’s land where recreational usage is neither explicitly permitted nor prohibited. Authorities have sometimes made up rules on the fly. One day in late July, dispensary owners woke up to news that the government would arrest anyone selling pot without a license despite the fact that no licenses had ever been issued. The order was quickly reversed.
Many in the industry favor regulation, seeing it as a way to separate the serious players from those looking to make a quick buck, and to reassure potential investors. Rules on pesticides, labeling and even labor can help place the industry on a more sustainable path and also prevent many of the ills marring the business in California.
“We don’t want to see those problems here,” said Thomas Ansusinha, co-founder and chief executive of Vertical High Farms, which operates indoor growing facilities just outside Bangkok.
Thomas Ansusinha, co-founder and chief executive of Vertical High Farms, walks through an indoor grow space at the facilities just outside Bangkok. (Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)
The former data analyst envisions his company and Thailand developing into a hub for cannabis-related research and development, and setting the standard for medicinal and recreational marijuana.
“The goal is to have our product recognized for being the highest quality,” Ansusinha said at a recent industry party on a rooftop terrace where attendees competed in a lightning round of bong hits, exhaling plumes of smoke into the night.
Though polls show the majority of Thais support legalization, significant numbers fear it will lead to wider drug abuse and endanger the nation’s youth. It was on those grounds last month that opposition lawmakers called for cannabis to be re-criminalized and rejected legislation sponsored by Bhumjaithai designed to provide the industry with the regulations and guidelines it currently lacks.
Despite the pressure, few believe Thailand will reverse course with the current government — not now with the country’s elite diving into the industry. The auditing company Deloitte Thailand found that some of the nation’s largest companies have already made moves to join the green rush.
One executive at a medical marijuana company said Thai students with cannabis growing know-how were being lured back from California and Europe. And several industry professionals said Cookies, a San Francisco-based cannabis brand founded by rapper Berner, has made a bid to open a dispensary. (A representative for Cookies did not respond to requests for comment).
Cannabis is expected to generate anywhere from a few hundred million dollars a year to several billion depending on whom you ask. Unlike in the United States, there are no federal laws preventing banks or other financial institutions from working with pot firms.
Thailand has a long tradition of growing the plant, particularly in the fertile northeast, home to the famously potent Thai Stick, a strain relished by American GIs stationed in Asia. The strain would later be smuggled into the U.S. in the 1970s by various surfers, hippies and military veterans, according to the 2015 book by Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter called “Thai Stick.”
That may be fine for average pot smokers, many of whom are foreign tourists looking to enhance their beach vacations and dining experiences. Thai street food, they’re learning, is a fine remedy for the munchies.
But demand for high-quality cannabis is growing, and there is simply not enough domestic cultivation to meet it. That’s why dispensaries and cultivators are relying on foreign sources of marijuana.
Not that California is always sending its best weed.
“Product that’s locally produced are not high-quality,” said Stevens, the owner of the Sensii dispensary. “But the stuff from the U.S. is not A-class either. It’s C-class. It’s often too dry or vacuum sealed for so long it becomes dense like a rock. They’re sending the stuff they can’t sell.”
Wisan Potprasat is hoping to merge traditional Thai strains with the latest Californian strains. The 51-year-old civil engineer nicknamed the “Cannaboss” heads the sprawling grow site near Myanmar where Snoop Dogg’s visage covers the side of the clubhouse building, where visitors can eat, drink and get high.
Outfitted with a 20-foot-tall marijuana leaf sculpture and a helipad for VIPs, the site conjures a sort of stoner Area 51. Plans are afoot for a music festival in November to establish the site as a cannabis tourism destination.
Wisan named it the River Kwae Herbal Therapeutic Center to emphasize the medical potential of cannabis.
The group also operates a wellness center several miles away where visitors can receive a massage with cannabis-infused oil and purchase cannabis body lotion, cannabis soap, cannabis mosquito repellent, cannabis rash cream and Thai “420″ whiskey.