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Thailand is largely regarded as a conservative, deeply religious country, with a military prone to intervening in politics and a king for whom “revered worship” is stipulated in the constitution. It’s also the first country in Asia to decriminalize cannabis and the first in Southeast Asia to move toward legalizing same-sex unions. Such developments stand out in a region where gay sex is illegal in many countries and some impose the death penalty for drug offenses. Among those cheering the moves in Thailand are the vital tourism industry. 

1. Is smoking weed really legal in Thailand now? 

Yes. Since June 9, cannabis — also known as marijuana, pot or weed — is no longer listed as a banned substance under Thailand’s Narcotics Act. However, the government says the decriminalization is intended for medical purposes only. It has repeatedly sought to discourage recreational use, though that will be difficult to enforce as there is no law that explicitly prohibits it. The government has warned that smoking pot in public could violate the country’s public health law, which states that a cannabis smell or smoke is a public nuisance. It has also moved since decriminalization to restrict its use to adults 20 and over and to ban it in schools and for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Although all parts of the cannabis plants of any potency are legal now, cannabis extracts that contain more than 0.2% of the psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), remain illegal. 

2. What’s happening with gay marriage?

Thailand’s House of Representatives passed several bills relating to rights of same-sex couples in June. The bill backed the Cabinet stops short of actual marriage. Instead, same-sex partners would be able to register a civil union, jointly manage assets and inherit upon death, and adopt children together. The House also passed one proposed by the opposition Move Forward Party that’s known as the marriage equality bill. It would amend Thailand’s Civil and Commercial Code to remove references to sex or gender in the official definition of marriage. The bills still require additional votes in the House and Senate before any could become law; no dates have been set. One opposition lawmaker noted that Thailand doesn’t necessarily have to choose between the two options. Precedents have been set in countries like France where couples — same-sex or opposite -– are able to enter into a civil partnership or get married.

3. Why is the government doing this?

Despite a 2014 military coup — one of many over the years — the government has been gradually moving in a generally more progressive direction with regards to cannabis and LGBTQ rights, though the reasons vary.

• The civil union bill was approved in principle in 2018 by the junta’s cabinet under Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who had ousted the civilian government. It followed years of pressure from civil society and some government officials for Thailand to advance human rights and modernize to keep up with changing social norms.

• Also in 2018 the junta-appointed parliament approved the medical use of marijuana, citing health benefits, and that limited measure took effect in early 2019. The push for broader legalization came later that year, after the first post-coup election. The Bhumjaithai Party of construction tycoon Anutin Charnvirakul had promoted cannabis as a cash crop and promised to legalize household cultivation. When the party came in fifth and joined the coalition government, Anutin became health minister. He claimed his decree removing cannabis from the narcotics list as a victory for his party.

Local businesses and household growers, for starters. In no time, many dispensaries have popped up in Bangkok to sell cannabis buds, many of which are locally sourced. Long lines of customers stretch into the sidewalks of bustling streets. Some well-known restaurant brands have started selling cannabis-infused food and drinks, not to mention many other small businesses. It’s expected that cannabis farming will become more robust once a bill being considered to regulate the growing, importing and exporting and sale of cannabis is passed. The tourism sector, still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, is also looking to take advantage of the developments to boost Thailand’s brand as an LGBTQ-friendly destination and one of the world’s biggest centers for gender change and medical and wellness tourism.

5. What’s the overall status of LGBTQ in Thailand?

As a predominantly Buddhist country that remained so amid the arrival of Islam and Western colonialism in centuries past, Thailand doesn’t doesn’t have a legacy of laws against homosexuality or sodomy like some of its neighbors. But despite its reputation for having a relaxed attitude toward gender and sexual diversity, LGBTQ activists say there is a long way to go to achieve equality. Same-sex unions performed elsewhere aren’t recognized. Thus, foreigners married to Thai nationals are eligible for non-immigrant spousal visas only if they are of the opposite sex, and same-sex spouses of expatriate workers in Thailand are not eligible for dependent visas. Thai nationals can’t legally change their gender or title on national identification documents to reflect their identity. Many LGBTQ activists have also complained about discrimination when it comes to employment decisions. While there is a degree of LGBTQ visibility in the entertainment industry, including at nightclubs and on television talk shows, they are still largely underrepresented in other roles in society.

6. How does this fit into the broader Thai landscape?

Thai society can at times seem outdated and riddled with tight rules on the one hand, tolerant and free-wheeling on the other. There is no official state religion but monks are highly respected. The monarchy is considered society’s “spiritual pillar” and any criticism is prohibited as a matter of national security, with violations punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The 2019 election was billed as an end to five years of military rule, yet not much changed: Prayuth returned as prime minister with the help of a military-backed party and the military-appointed Senate. Crackdowns on dissidents and government critics made headlines during unprecedented youth protests in 2020, which called for the king’s power and wealth to be curbed and more democracy introduced. On other fronts, cities and resorts like Bangkok and Pattaya are known as centers of the Southeast Asian sex trade, despite the fact that prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960. Some lawmakers are working on legalizing casinos, seeking to generate jobs, attract foreign investment and boost tourism. The parliament is also considering a bill that would open up the alcohol market, currently dominated by big corporations, to smaller players and homebrewers. 

7. How does this fit with the rest of Asia?

Thailand seems to be a trailblazer for the rest of Asia. Some neighbors such as Singapore penalize possession, consumption and trafficking of cannabis with hefty fines, prison terms or even the death penalty. In Malaysia, which also has tough drug laws, a parliamentary caucus is looking into policies for medical use of cannabis. Taiwan is the only Asian jurisdiction that legally recognizes same-sex marriage. Vietnam allows same-sex couples to have symbolic weddings but doesn’t recognize the marriage. Hong Kong doesn’t allow it, but does permit gay expatriate workers to bring their spouses in on dependent visas. Meanwhile, in other places like Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, sexual relations between people of the same sex are outlawed.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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