Bangkok/Pattaya, Thailand — Nearly a year after Thailand decriminalised cannabis amid promises of an economic bonanza, Thai growers and sellers say they are being undercut by illegal imports from the United States that sell for a fraction of the price of homegrown buds.
Thailand struck cannabis from its list of banned narcotics in June 2022 after a high-profile campaign by Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul to establish the kingdom as a global hub for cannabis for medical purposes.
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But Thailand’s parliament has yet to pass a long-awaited cannabis bill, leaving the regulatory framework for the industry in limbo.
Local businesses say foreign money is filling the gap, with many dispensaries across the country pushing low-cost cannabis imported illegally from the US.
Foreign brokers are approaching local dispensaries to hawk cheap, smuggled weed that is untaxed and then sold at two to five times its original price, according to local cannabis entrepreneurs.
“A decent locally grown strain goes for 300 baht [$9] per gram but imports are only 150-180 baht [$4.50-5.30] per gram,” Prajya Aura-ek, a cannabis entrepreneur with several licensed dispensaries in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera.
“Each day we have brokers, both Thais and other nationalities — this is definitely a multinational business — coming into our shops trying to sell us imported weed. But we turn them all down.”
Prajya said brokers have told him the product is smuggled in furniture and fruit or vegetable containers “so when customs scan, they can’t tell that it’s weed”.
Under Thai law, recreational cannabis use is still theoretically illegal. However, enforcement is patchy and cannabis shops and stalls are found on practically every other street corner in Thailand’s major towns and cities.
As tourists flood into Thailand to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere towards recreational cannabis use, Prajya worries that Thai businesses are missing out on the booming demand.
“At the end of the day, my customers care more about the potency of the THC content rather than the origin of the weed,” he said, saying US strains can be higher in THC, the compound that gives cannabis users the high, than homegrown strains.
“We need to protect the domestic market and support Thai growers and farmers.”
The Bhumjaithai Party, which pushed decriminalisation, blames corrupt officials for the flood of illegal imports, and political opportunism ahead of general elections on Sunday for the negative headlines about cannabis reform.
“There’s already a law in place to deal with illegal imports but the people supposed to be in charge fail to enforce it, namely officers from customs and agriculture departments,” Supachai Jaisamutr, a Bhumjaithai Party member leading the defence of the reforms, told Al Jazeera.
“But in the long term, we need to pass the Cannabis Act so there will be specific law to tackle this specific issue of weed smuggling.”
Supachai noted that the Thai Chambers of Commerce estimated that the cannabis industry last year generated about 40 billion baht ($1.2bn) for the local economy.
“But I think it’s fair to say it’s really in the hundreds of billions baht,” he added.
But for many local players competing with foreign money, the economic benefits are hard to see.
One veteran cannabis dealer-turned-legal entrepreneur said he invested heavily in making his own soils and fertiliser, only to find that his cannabis is too expensive for a market filled with cheap imports.
“Many Thai growers have turned to cannabis horticulture, trying to master their skills,” Squidroll Record, who has used an alias over his long career selling cannabis, told Al Jazeera.
“But the Thai market has been flooded with cheap illegal imports with the help of corrupt Thai officials. The demand for imported flowers is so high right now.”
The Bhumjathai Party’s big promises have predictably fallen flat, with big money from the US, the Netherlands and Canada dashing hopes of a booming domestic industry, according to veteran cannabis advocate Chokwan “Kitty” Chopaka.
“Unfortunately corruption and nepotism tend to be the obstacles,” Chokwan told Al Jazeera.
“It’s quite sad to see the people who it’s supposed to be for, unable to get into the market,” she added.
The disappointment is compounded by the well-publicised raids on street stalls, which hit the bottom of the food chain and not the big players who have distorted the market, Squidroll Record said.
“Many shops right now are foreign-owned, leaving those with no access to capital having to sell on the sidewalks,” he said.
“It turns out it’s just another fight between greedy men.”