Forget California and Amsterdam: This country wants to become the new king of weed

Employees trim marijuana leaves at a farm in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. In June, Thailand became the first country in Asia to legalize domestically produced pot. (Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)
 DAVID PIERSON STAFF WRITER 

Many hours from Bangkok, down a winding road dotted with ornate wooden spirit houses, past fields of drooping tapioca plants and across a bridge over the inky green River Khwae, a white-paneled building sits in a clearing.

Painted on one side is a graffiti-style mural: Snoop Dogg smoking a joint.

If all goes to plan, the rapper from Long Beach won’t be the only connection to California on this patch of wilderness — one of Thailand’s largest legal cannabis farms. The owners are awaiting approval to import seeds from the Humboldt Seed Co. to crossbreed Thai and Californian marijuana.

A mural depicting Long Beach rapper Snoop Dogg smoking marijuana covers the wall of a clubhouse at a pot farm in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
(Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)

“We had to have Snoop,” said Ditwarin Kitchalong, 38, a supervisor at the facility. “Everyone knows he’s the godfather of cannabis.”

“This is a dream job,” he added during a tour of the farm from a restored World War II-era Jeep. “I wish I could smoke all day, but we’re just too busy.”

Thailand is barreling toward a future in which it could surge past Amsterdam and parts of the United States as a global destination for both cannabis cultivation and consumption.

In June, the government legalized domestically produced pot — a first in Asia — igniting a green rush that’s seduced farmers, corporations and seemingly everyone in between. No business idea is too far-fetched. Care for a cannabis-infused bubble tea or a cannabis spa treatment? Looking for a vending machine offering the latest CBD spray? Thailand has you covered.
Marijuana dispensaries line a street in Bangkok’s Asoke neighborhood. (Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)

But from Bangkok to the tourism enclave of Phuket, there is also the unmistakable whiff of the world’s largest legal weed market: California.

Restrictions on imported weed haven’t stopped dispensaries from touting strains smuggled from California, including Tahoe Cookies, Gary Payton and Skittles. Alchemi Botanics, a small dispensary in downtown Bangkok, charges about $65 for an eighth of an ounce of what it calls The OG and describes as a “Homage to L.A.”

“Before, we’d only get Thai strains,” said Prin Supasinsathit, 30, who recently launched a bong cleaning solution brand with the help of his scientist mother. “Now it’s coming in from California and Amsterdam. I live in a four-story house and I can smell that Cali Kush from the ground floor.”

That Thailand is now awash in U.S. weed is an irony not lost on those working in the industry. Washington has spent billions over decades trying to prevent drugs from entering the United States — a global campaign that once precipitated the invasion of Panama in 1989.
“It’s an interesting role reversal, to say the least,” said Colin Stevens, 41, a longtime American expatriate in Bangkok who operates a dispensary called Sensii. “The U.S. has always acted high and mighty about drugs, but I don’t see them doing anything to stop it from coming to Thailand.”

A spokesperson for California’s Department of Cannabis Control said sending cannabis — including seeds and other genetic material — abroad is prohibited by federal law. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration did not respond to a request for comment.

For many Thais and longtime residents, the sudden proliferation of dispensaries, weed cafes and open drug use is difficult to square with the not-too-distant past.

Thailand used to execute drug traffickers — a punishment still used by several countries in the region — even as it served as a major transit hub for narcotics. In one notable crackdown that started in 2003 and lasted almost three years, the government led a “war on drugs” that resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings.

Things began to change in 2018, when Anutin Charnvirakul, the head of the populist Bhumjaithai party and Thailand’s current health minister, began touting marijuana for medical use.

He saw cannabis as a potential cash crop, and his decision to champion it was an attempt to win votes in his agricultural political base in the country’s northeast.

American expatriate Colin Stevens owns Sensii, a marijuana dispensary in Bangkok’s Asoke neighborhood. “The U.S. has always acted high and mighty about drugs,” Stevens said, “but I don’t see them doing anything to stop it from coming to Thailand.” (Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)
Naviya, the 22-year-old owner of a marijuana stand on Khaosan Road in Bangkok, prepares a joint for tourists. (Lauren DeCicca / For The Times)

That year on Christmas Day, with a vote by the legislature, Thailand became the first country in the region to allow medical pot.

It was all part of a strategy — one pioneered in California — to eventually achieve broader legalization. In 2019, Anutin’s party won enough seats in the legislature to push the ruling coalition toward that goal.

Foreign cannabis companies poured into Thailand to do due diligence, exploring ways their expertise in cannabis extraction, testing or production could be licensed in the nation of 70 million.

When the legislature finally decriminalized pot this year, Anutin and the government launched a campaign to distribute a million free cannabis plants to households around the country.

Thailand wasn’t prepared for the sudden shift.

“It’s the Wild West,” said Lawrence Chaney, a Bangkok-based American lawyer who has been advising businesses in the industry. “There are no rules, so it’s pretty much a free-for-all.”

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.

It was in July at the International Cannabis Business Conference in Berlin that Wisan met representatives of the Humboldt Seed Co., an award-winning breeder located in the heart of Northern California’s largest cannabis-growing region, the Emerald Triangle.

Wisan told them about his 150-acre farm — how it was outfitted with dozens of air-conditioned grow houses and how he had a license to cultivate hundreds of thousands of plants. What he needed was the best plant genetics to breed homegrown Thai cannabis.

The Humboldt executives agreed to help, explaining that the only way to export seeds legally was through a subsidiary in Canada.

“There may be something that just does incredibly well in Thailand that just so happened to be developed in Humboldt or the Bay Area,” Nathaniel Pennington, founder of the 21-year-old California company, said while pondering the possibilities. “There’s no reason why Californian cannabis can’t be recognized or as successful as other exports like Californian wine.”

Wisan is now waiting for an import license from the government, counting the days before he can start planting Californian roots into the red clay Thai soil.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE