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Bangkok — The RG420 cannabis cafe opened just four days ago in Khao San, an area of Bangkok popular with backpackers — and already it is crammed with customers.
Several such outlets have sprang up across the capital since Thailand decriminalised the plant in June, a few weeks before it dropped Covid-19-linked controls on foreign visitors.
Foreign arrivals shrank to 2-million in the first half of 2022 from nearly 40-million in 2019, and RG420's owner Ong-ard Panyachatiraksa and others like him view their cafes as central to efforts to revive a tourism industry that contributed about 12% to GDP before the pandemic struck.
He said hundreds have been visiting the cafe every day, and he plans to open others.
“Europeans, Japanese, Americans — they are looking for Thai sativa,” Ong-ard said, referring to a cannabis strain. “Cannabis and tourism are a match.”
Not everyone agrees.
In 2018, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to legalise marijuana for medical use. In June, the entire cannabis plant was decriminalised.
That has led to an explosion in its recreational use, something that government officials — concerned about negative effects on health and productivity often linked to uncontrolled use of the drug — have retrospectively tried to discourage.
“The law does not cover recreational cannabis use … and so tourism promotion is focused on medical [aspects],” said the national tourism authority's deputy governor, Siripakorn Cheawsamoot.
The pushback against the way the new policy is being interpreted has caused some confusion, with authorities resorting to issuing piecemeal regulations such as banning public smoking of cannabis and its sale to under 20s.
A parliamentary committee is now debating a bill to regulate cannabis use that is expected to finalise in September and could affect the cannabis cafes.
Akira Wongwan, a medical cannabis entrepreneur and one of the committee's advisers, said she expects recreational use to be subject to zoning laws.
Meanwhile, in the crowded smoking room at RG420 — a reference to Rag Gan, a Thai expression meaning “love each other” — Briton Malik Khan has just finished rolling a joint.
“This country is beautiful, and there's so much to do here as well,” the 26-year-old said. “It [cannabis] adds to the scene really nicely.”
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.