Cannabis cafes the latest addition to Thailand’s tourism offerings

The RG420 cannabis cafe opened just four days ago in Khao San, an area of Bangkok popular with backpackers – and already it’s crammed with customers.

Several such outlets have sprung up across the capital since Thailand decriminalized the plant in June, a few weeks before it dropped COVID-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 Ongard 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 told Reuters, 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 decriminalized.

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 retropectively tried to discourage.

“The law does not cover recreational cannabis use… and so tourism promotion is focused on medical (aspects),” the national tourism authority’s Deputy Governor, Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, said.

The pushback against the way the new policy is being interpreted has caused some confusion, with authorities resorting to issuing piecemeal regulations such 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 finalize in September and could impact the cannabis cafes.

Akira Wongwan, a medical cannabis entrepreneur and one of the committee’s advisers, said she expected 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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