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History of Marijuana Use and Anti-Marijuana Laws in Thailand
By Eric Blair
The NCB followed the passing just a year earlier of the Thailand Psychotropic Substances Act 2518 (1975), which listed 108 controlled items in four classifications17, and also saw an assortment of Thailand drug and narcotics laws (Kratom Plant Act B.E. 2486 (1943), Marijuana Act B.E. 2486 (1943), and Narcotics Act, B.E. 2465 (1922)) combined into the Thailand Narcotics Act, B.E. 2522 (1979).18
The Thailand Narcotic Act B.E. 2522 states the current potential punishments for the possession of marijuana in Thailand:
For possession of up to 10kg, the maximum sentence is 5 years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 baht.
For possession of more than 10kg, it is considered as possession with intent to sell. The sentence can range from 2 - 15 years in prison, and/or include a fine of 20,000 to 150,000 baht. Charges can also be levied for amounts of 10kg or more for the intent to produce, import or export cannabis. The sentence is the same.
7. US and Foreign Influence on Thailand’s Drug Laws
The U.S. government opened its first office in Bangkok in 196319. The DEA currently maintains offices in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Udon Thani and recently closed an office in the southern Thai city of Songkhla. The DEA offices in Thailand comprise 6 percent of the DEA’s foreign workforce, making it the DEA’s fourth largest country presence in terms of allocated personnel. As of 2006, the Thailand DEA offices were authorized to have a total of 47 fulltime personnel. The number of US DEA agents that are currently working on a full time or transitory capacity in Thailand is unknown. US DEA agents are reportedly allowed the privilege to be armed within Thailand. If this is true, this would be the only foreign law enforcement agency allowed this privilege.
The DEA runs a number of programs within Thailand. One notable program is the operation ‘Hot Spot’ program in Pattaya (http://www.dea-rewards.com/len/index.php). The Hot Spot program provides monetary rewards for informant tips. The DEA has carried out a number of highly publicized operations within Thailand including Operation Tiger Trap, as well as the recent “sting operation” and subsequent arrest and extradition of Viktor Bout.
8. Policy and Trends
Although the United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs classifies drugs into one of four categories, Thailand’s drug laws and the USA’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970 contain five categories. Unlike the United States, Thailand classifies marijuana, magic mushrooms, and Kratom2020 leaves (an indigenous plant traditionally used for medicinal purposes with mildly addictive properties) into the least serious Category five.
In 2002 as reported in ‘The Nation’ newspaper, the current Prime Minister of Thailand proposed legalizing the “less dangerous drugs like Marijuana in order to lure addicts away from harmful drugs”. While this proposal was not implemented, it demonstrates that Thailand viewed drugs such as methamphetamines and heroin as posing a higher threat than that posed by marijuana.21
Nevertheless, Thailand no longer retains its status as a major producer of marijuana. The aforementioned Drug Enforcement Administration’s Intelligence Division 2001 Report stated that the Thai government’s eradication efforts forced marijuana traffickers to relocate their cultivation operations to neighboring countries such as Laos or Cambodia. However some domestic cultivation of the plant still occurs in Northeastern Thailand, particularly in Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Sakhon Nakhon provinces.22
In 2003, the Thai government launched a “War on Drugs" in response to the influx of methamphetamines (locally called ya-baa) from Burma that flooded the country. Thai authorities claimed that methamphetamine use in Thailand had increased by more than 1,000 per cent between 1993 and 2001.
Early records of drug detection and apprehension in Thailand are difficult to come by, even from the Office of Narcotics Control Board, however those that are available show interesting trends.
Since 2004, the number of cases involving ya-baa have increased by 256 per cent – from 34,860 in 2004 to 124,121 in 2009, while cases involving ice (methamphetamine Hydrochloride crystal) have increased by 1,411 per cent, from 265 cases in 2004 to 3,464 cases in 2009.23 The ONCB says that over the same period, cases involving marijuana increased by only 72.75 percent24
The 2010 figures from the ONCB parallel the findings from previous years. The ONCB notes that there were 138,013 Ya-baa cases in 2010, 712 heroin cases, 6,669 Kratom cases, 12,021 dried marijuana cases and 635 fresh marijuana cases.25
It is not clear why methamphetamines and kratom use appear to be escalating, while the use of more “traditional” substances such as marijuana are only slowly increasing. Also perplexing is data showing that heroin use is actually declining. According to some reports, Thai youth consider marijuana to be anachronistic, an agricultural relic from a by-gone era. Many wealthy Thai youth may be more attracted to “club drugs” like ecstasy and ketamine.
We spoke with Thakoon Chantararangsi, a Thai attorney and barrister at the Bangkok law firm Chaninat & Leeds, regarding how travelers arrested for marijuana are treated in the Thai justice system: “Let’s make no mistake about it: Marijuana is illegal in Thailand and getting arrested in Thailand for marijuana can result in jail time and can seriously disrupt your life and travel plans. However, for the majority of people arrested for simple possession of small quantities a fine, rather than prison time, is imposed. Nevertheless, the actual law does give the judge discretion to impose a prison term. The main issues for travelers are: jail time pending bail, the inability to leave the country while a case is pending, and being blacklisted from future travel to Thailand. However, Narcotics police in Thailand currently view methamphetamines (ice and “ya baa”) as a more serious issue.”26
9. Culture and Reform
Unlike North America, Europe and other regions, there does not appear to be a visible legalization movement in Thailand. However, there appears to be a sub-culture that is remarkably pro-cannabis within Thai culture. This pro-cannabis culture has left its mark primarily on music and fashion.
The closest equivalent of the “Hippy Movement” in Thailand is probably the “Peua Cheewit” movement. The “Peua Cheewit” (translation: “for life”) music and social movement was established in the 1970s, a turbulent era in Thai history. The founders of the Peua Cheewit movement were mainly students at Ramkhamhaeng and Thammasart Universities, who staged protests against what they considered repressive practices by the Thai government. The movement served as the figurehead for the democracy movement in Thailand at the time.
Many of the protests ended violently. For example in 1976, forty-six students were shot by government troops while protesting on the Thammasat University campus (referred to as the Thammasat University Massacre). Nevertheless, the movement spurred political change in several areas and also created a youth culture based on egalitarian and non-materialistic lifestyles.27
The two most well-known bands of the Peua Cheewit movement are Carabao and Maleewana. Maleewana’s name is actually a take on the name marijuana. Marijuana is not a common word for cannabis in Thailand. In Thailand marijuana is referred to as “ganja”. Maleewana’s video “Kratom Ganja” is a classic Thai folk-rock song about a rustic marijuana farm. Carabao also has a song about marijuana entitled Marijuana Gunja.
Hemp fiber is still a popular material to use in the creation of shirts, pants, and other types of clothing items in Thailand. The international symbol of cannabis support, the marijuana leaf logo, can be found on t-shirts all over Thailand. Typically the younger generation of Thais, and Thai teenagers, can be seen wearing clothing emblazoned with the marijuana leaf.
Reggae music is also very popular in Thailand, particularly among Thai youth. This trend can be seen in the music offered by various bars and clubs in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the Thai islands to their tourists and young Thai party-goer patrons. Although many Reggae fans are probably enjoying the music and fashion of Reggae without smoking marijuana, hemp clothing articles and the marijuana leaf logo are intrinsic parts of the Reggae culture. It is within these many tourist and counter-culture hotspots of Thailand that the drug tourism scene can be found. Nevertheless, according to Chaninat and Leeds, “just because a destination is well-known for marijuana does not mean you won’t get arrested for using. Many of our drug arrest cases come from tourist areas such as Khao San Road and Koh Phangan”.