Cannabis, same-sex unions & beer – the end of Thai prohibition?

By the end of 2022, Thai cannabis legislation sets to be passed. Momentum too is also building behind making home brew and same sex marriage finally being made legal in Thailand.

The fact that this reform trifecta is even a consideration will surprise many who know Thailand, where a combination of powerful commercial interests and conservative societal elements have usually been able to stymie attempts to liberalize many aspects of Thai social policy.    

Out of the three, Thai cannabis legislation is well on the way to being successfully passed by parliament – having already been decriminalized. Final legislation formally regulating its use is not far off. Alcohol reform and same sex marriage meanwhile, ‘should’ be the next cabs off the reform ranks with the legislation on these two issues passing the first reading stage in parliament. However, both still need to face parliamentary committees for review and political horse trading in the Thai senate before they become law.

One less reason to stay at the Bangkok Hilton…

The fact that Thailand has decriminalized cannabis, nominally for medical – but not recreational – purposes, may be a surprise given Thailand’s (and Southeast Asia’s) historical low tolerance to drug usage.  The day after decriminalization kicked in, stores selling cannabis around the country were doing a roaring trade.

Momentum for this reform has been building for several years and has come from a diverse set of stakeholders with different sets of motivations and incentives.

The most uncynical of these have been from the medical community, highlighting scientific evidence of the therapeutic benefits.  Years in advance of the June 2022 liberalization, the Thai Government sanctioned the development of cannabis oils for medical usage while at the same time carefully developing a medical and regulatory framework.

While partly to ensure safety and efficacy concerns, the gradual approach allowed the government to gently test public opinion and level of comfort with conversations around cannabis in a controlled domain. That this conversation occurred with near zero controversy or backlash was a huge step, given the existence of well-connected (and funded) puritanical interests who often shut down reformist debate in Thailand.

Law enforcement too appear particularly unfazed, and tacitly appears supportive of the move. Those in law enforcement who we have spoken to see that legalization allows Thai police to free up scarce resources for more critical issues around drugs and criminal activity, methamphetamine production and smuggling being chief amongst these.

The relatively long lead-in time to decriminalization also had a cynical side, encapsulated by a running joke that many MP’s now have shares in cannabis ventures. This gave well moneyed and politically connected interests a head-start to position themselves for eventual liberalization and the resulting financial bonanza. And while unsightly, Thai style real-politick probably demanded personal and societal progress go hand in hand, ultimately reflected in the 373 to 7 vote in Thai parliament on the first reading of the cannabis reform bill.

One down – two to go. Brewing your own beer should get easier in Thailand…

With Thais the third highest per capital alcohol consumers in Asia, behind the South Koreans and Vietnamese, and beer being 73% of Thai consumption, beer has always been a lucrative, and jealously guarded market.

Industry lobbying has meant small players are effectively shut out, with small beer and liquor producers barred from licenses due to the imposition of a minimum volumetric production requirement of 10 million litres per year for beer, and 30,000 litres per day for whiskey.     

While the status quo remained uncontroversial for decades, the increased popularity of ‘craft’ beer and spirits meant that Thai brewers resorted to producing their beer in Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia, and then importing smaller batches into Thailand. While legal, it was economically uncompetitive and led to the perverse situation where medium sized Thai brewers and distillers had to go offshore to service the Thai market.

Similar to Thai cannabis legislation reform, religious and teetotal elements in civil society (and government) were always key elements of opposition to any liberalization, resulting in tightly controlled rules around alcoholic beverage sales and advertising. Add in the economic interests of entrenched players, and the chances of reform were always thought to be extremely low.

Thai cannabis more legal than Thai craft beer (for now).

A recent first reading vote on the matter in parliament appearing to pave the way for significant liberalization in this area in coming months, led by the Future Forward party, which polls show is heavily favored by younger voters.

With Thai cannabis legislation, perhaps the most contentious issue out of the three having been passed, the fact that at the time of printing, cannabis is less regulated than home-brew should make it easier for legislators to accept relatively less controversial alcohol reforms.

Traditionally conservative legislators appear to have warmed to the fact that liberalized production of both cannabis and alcohol is potentially a boon for poorer rural communities, traditional reliant on crops such as rice, maize and cassava. As previous CLC Asia analysis has shown, agricultural productivity in Thailand, especially for smaller scale farmers, has decreased over several years through the lack of investment, as well as increased competition from competitors in Vietnam and China.

The potential for cannabis and small-scale alcohol production to provide alternate sources of income for the politically important farming community has been highlighted in lobbying wavering legislators. Passing these bills will potentially come in handy for a ruling coalition government in the run up to national elections in 2023 where rural votes will be important.

Same sex marriage and civil unions?

Like cannabis and alcohol reform, a first reading of at least four different potential bills have been passed. Like most of Asia, same sex marriage remains illegal in Thailand. To many observers, reform should be a ‘no brainer’ given Thai society’s general acceptance (or at least ambivalence) to the issue. Major cities have establish LGBTQ communities. Trans-beauty pageants have been commonplace for decades, and Bangkok is a well-known destination for plastic surgery and gender re-assignment.

At the policy level, cabinet has already indicated conceptual support for reform and the constitutional court has recommended legislation be expanded to be more inclusive.

Like other issues discussed here, there does not appear to be any significant opposition to civil unions and/or same sex marriage becoming law, so advocates are hopeful concluding legislation in the life of the current parliament is possible.

A new Venice Amsterdam of the East?

How these reforms impact the broader way Thai society runs remains to be seen.

At one level, it will probably make little initial difference. Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, has always had a very laissez-faire approach. Final cannabis legislation will probably mean that we won’t see Amsterdam style ‘coffee bars’ any time soon, while existing government excise on alcohol means even the most niche of craft beers will remain relatively expensive on a global scale.

But the legalizing these things will have a bigger impact behind the scenes, with less organized crime (at least) involved with drug and alcohol smuggling. Same sex marriage will also mean that many in Thai society will be able to access the same legal protections that heterosexuals currently enjoy.

Economically it will also mean that Thailand will, for a while at least, be the sole Asian beneficiary of huge investment pools of money looking to exploit the green and pink dollar, a point not lost on Thailand’s tourism and investment chiefs struggling for ways to re-invent Thailand’s value proposition, which was struggling even before the impact of COVID.     

Chris Larkin is CLC Asia’s founder and managing director.