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Thailand is rethinking its approach in its drug laws

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Southeast Asia has some of the toughest drug laws in the world. One country bucking that trend is Thailand, which recently decriminalized cannabis and freed thousands of people convicted of cannabis-related offenses from jail. NPR's Michael Sullivan has this report.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's 11 o'clock in the morning. The small storefront dispensary Sukhumweed, in one of Bangkok's upscale neighborhoods, has just opened, and it's already packed with customers, even before the staff has had time to get ready.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. We're about to set up. Would you have a seat for us and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Sure. Sure. Just having a quick look. Is that all right to have a look?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. Yes. Sure.

SULLIVAN: Thailand took cannabis off the dangerous narcotics list in June, and there was probably nobody happier about that than Sukhumweed owner Soranut Masayavanich.

SORANUT MASAYAVANICH: Cannabis belongs to everyone. It's not business. This is [expletive] personal.

SULLIVAN: Actually, for him, it's both. Back in the day, the 37-year-old Soranut was a teen actor on one of Thailand's top-rated comedy series until he wasn't.

What happened?

MASAYAVANICH: Well, I got busted for weed, and it was on the front page.

SULLIVAN: He was quickly written out of the series, then tried his luck as a singer. The Bangkok Post called him the Thai Johnny Cash. The longtime legalization activist advised the government committee that pushed the decriminalization effort. And the day it happened, he was ready.

MASAYAVANICH: We sold out the farm in two days (laughter).

SULLIVAN: Now there are shops like his all over the city and, of course, apps for home delivery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: There are also mobile vans like this one prowling Bangkok's tourist districts selling pre-rolled joints. And all of this is a remarkable turnaround for a country that waged a violent war on drugs just two decades ago, not unlike the one former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte carried out in the Philippines that left thousands dead.

But here's the thing - decriminalization wasn't designed with recreational use in mind. The idea was for Thailand to grab some of the multibillion-dollar medicinal marijuana business worldwide and help poor Thai farmers with a more lucrative alternative to planting rice or rubber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANUTIN CHARNVIRAKUL: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul was the driving force behind decriminalization, telling farmers at a recent cannabis fair that it can make them real money. Plant it. Sell it to the government, he told the crowd. If you don't get rich today, he asked, when will you? But the speed with which the recreational business has taken off has alarmed some here because four months after cannabis was decriminalized, legislation has yet to be passed regulating its use.

GLORIA LAI: At the moment, it really is a free-for-all. Who can sell it? How can you sell it? Like, standards, quality controls - none of that is really there.

SULLIVAN: Gloria Lai is Asia director for the International Drug Policy Consortium based in Bangkok. She says cannabis extracts, oils, gummies that contain more than 0.2% THC are still illegal, but there's no real rules on selling the plant itself or limiting the THC content of its flowers.

LAI: There's almost no education or guidance to kind of prepare people. So if you're wanting to use it, if you're wanting to grow it, how do you go about doing it? There's very little or almost none of that, and you wouldn't have thought that it's that difficult to have laid down rules.

SULLIVAN: Five hundred miles to the north, in Chiang Rai province, Wasan Chaimala is trying to teach local farmers about the growing part. The former cop tells me he's been working with a local university for the past three years, providing extracts for the until-now tightly controlled medical marijuana trade. And that experience, he says, helps him advise 50 groups of farmers from all over the country directly.

WASAN CHAIMALA: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: And because of that experience, Wasan says, his co-op was among the first to be ready to help others grow their business when things changed in June.

CHAIMALA: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: "We're teaching them how to grow high-quality cannabis for the export market," he says, "both medicinal and for the cosmetics industry. We tell farmers if they want to compete internationally, they have to grow high-quality plants or no one will buy."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

SULLIVAN: About an hour to the east, along the Mekong River in the infamous Golden Triangle, a local farmer named Tai - just Tai - seems to have figured out the whole growing thing already. Like many farmers here, her family has been planting small amounts of cannabis for years to use in cooking and homemade medicine.

TAI: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: She says she started planting to sell immediately after cannabis was delisted in June. And wholesalers started coming for her young plants almost immediately, placing orders for two to three hundred per week. She's happy for the short-term business but thinks it's just that and predicts everyone will soon be planting, creating a glut that will cause prices to plunge. She's keeping her focus on a tried-and-true moneymaker dear to millennials - avocados.

TAI: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: She says avocados are a long-term moneymaker, and marijuana won't be. And besides, she says, even if it is, big business will just come in and corner the market anyway. So, yes, she says. I'll stick with avocados.

TAI: (Laughter).

SULLIVAN: When the new cannabis law is finally passed, many here expect recreational use will be limited somewhat, but few expect it to be banned outright. Until then, emergency regulations have been passed, forbidding its sale to minors and pregnant and breastfeeding women. And smoking in public can still get you fined. But for some post-COVID revenge tourists, the Land of Smiles could now be even more enticing than ever.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.