First, let's set the record straight: Recreation drugs in Thailand are not legal.
In fact, until January 2017, Thai law once allowed for the death penalty for anyone caught carrying, transporting, or using illegal drugs. Yes, you read that correctly—the death penalty!
The penalty for possession may include a lengthy term in Thai prison and steep fine. Numerous travelers sit behind bars in Thailand awaiting trials for drug possession. Sometimes they wait for years before they can even begin to serve their sentences. You can visit them and hear their stories during select hours when prisons open for foreign visitors.
Drug Use in Thailand
The use or possession of recreational drugs such as marijuana is illegal in Thailand. But as the sweet smoke wafts around you in some backpacker hostels, or you hear about bars in the islands that are famous for selling magic mushroom shakes, drug use seems casual and widespread. Access is easy. Sometimes psychedelic mushroom products are advertised in permanent, laminated menus in bars!
This double standard, along with rampant police corruption and sporadic enforcement, lead to a few travelers every year getting caught up in a legal system where they can't even read what they are signing. Don't let yourself end up in this situation.
More than 50 organized crime groups are estimated to be involved in moving drugs, particularly methamphetamines, into Thailand from neighboring Myanmar. The "Golden Triangle" where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet is second only to Afghanistan for production of opium poppies. Growing poppies is often a source of revenue for ethnic minority groups who are living in poverty.
Although cocaine, heroin, and other "hard" drugs can still be found, there has been a general shift to lifestyle and party drugs such as MDMA/ecstasy and crystal meth, appealing to the many travelers on holiday who have come to party in Thailand.
As you can imagine, pills often get cut with dangerous substances. Given the turnover of travelers, there's little accountability for the quality of pills being distributed at parties. Don't risk it. Just as traveler deaths due to drinking arak in Indonesia are kept quiet, the same happens to travelers who die in Thailand due to drug-related causes. Investigations almost never lead to action or reform.
Medical Marijuana in Thailand
Marijuana was used successfully as a natural medicine in Thailand for decades until it was criminalize in 1935.
In December 2018, the Thai government reinstated the use of marijuana for medical reasons; they were the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medicinal marijuana.
But just because the medical use of marijuana is legal again in Thailand doesn't give tourists full license to bring a stash from their home countries. You'll need to declare what you're carrying to customs agents then fill out forms to get official approval. Proof of travel and a doctor's prescription are required. Failing to get proper approval for carrying marijuana into Thailand could result in prosecution.
Magic Shakes and Happy Pizzas in Thailand
Natural products such as marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms have been available and popular with travelers in Thailand for decades. Both provide a needed means of bonus revenue in impoverished rural places.
Marijuana grows wild and is readily cultivated in the tropical climate, making it easy to find in Southeast Asia. Travelers often take advantage of its cheap availability. Some bars and guesthouses allow open smoking, although doing so is technically illegal.
Throughout parts of Southeast Asia, particularly along the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail, you'll sometimes encounter signs or menus advertising "magic" or "happy" foods and drinks. "Magic" typically means that the shake or drink contains psychedelic mushrooms, and "happy" denotes marijuana.
What Happens If You Get Caught?
In 2001, Thailand made world headlines for publicly executing five people, four were drug smugglers, by firing squad.
Fortunately, drug laws aren't quite as draconian as they were just a few years ago. Thailand's last capital punishment execution took place in 2009, however, Thai prisons still contain travelers sentenced to life who are awaiting either help from their governments or a royal pardon. Per a 2018 estimate, around 70 percent of the sizable prison population in Thailand is being held on drug-related charges.
Depending on the quantity of the illegal substance that you are carrying (i.e., more than you can consume in one sitting), you can receive up to life in prison. The minimum sentence for carrying drugs across the border is 10 years in prison. Thai law allows for a 1 – 10 year sentence and $660 – $6,600 fine for possession.
If you are accused of trafficking drugs in Thailand, there is no guarantee that your embassy will intercede or be able to help. You'll be on your own, possibly for years, waiting on a bureaucratic (and often convoluted) process to finally secure you a court date. Receiving a royal pardon or getting released could take a very long time.
Drugs in the Thai Islands
Drugs such as magic mushrooms and marijuana are relatively cheap and easy to buy in the Thai islands.
Despite being illegal, drugs can be purchased openly in a few bars on the island of Koh Phangan. Haad Rin, a peninsula of Koh Phangan, is famous for the monthly Full Moon Party where many travelers try psychedelic mushroom shakes to enhance the experience. Weekly electronic music parties at Haad Yuan are also sometimes enhanced with illegal substances.
Undercover, plain-clothed police—some are real, some are imitating police officers—do roam the Full Moon Parties to entrap travelers. They offer drugs for sale. These situations often result in the "officer" asking for a large bribe.
The Drug-Buying Scam in Thailand
When a traveler asks in a bar to purchase marijuana, the bartender sells it to them openly as if it's no big deal. He then immediately phones an associate who may or may not be a legitimate police officer.
The cop then shakes down the traveler on the beach, busts them with the weed they just purchased, and demands an expensive bribe. The weed is confiscated and given back to the barman who shares in the bribe profits. The same product is later resold to the next unsuspecting traveler!
Prescription Drugs in Thailand
Unlike in the United States where a prescription is required to obtain controlled medications, you can simply walk into many pharmacies throughout Thailand and purchase prescription "under the counter" drugs. The pills usually cost a fraction of the prices seen in the United States.
Although easy access can be handy for getting antibiotics or necessary medicines while traveling, some tourists abuse the open system and purchase large quantities of Valium (diazepam), sleeping pills, pain killers, Ritalin, Viagra, Adderall, and other popular drugs to take home.
Carrying these pills without a prescription or medical passport is illegal in Thailand.
Another concern is the proliferation of fakes at pharmacies in Thailand. Generic, low-quality strips of pills produced in India are sometimes substituted for popular choices such as Valium and sold at pharmacies in the Khao San Road area in Bangkok.
Drugs in Other Parts of Southeast Asia
Thailand's stance on drugs may seem extreme, but their neighbors are just as strict!
Getting busted in Singapore is no laughing matter; they impose a mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers and have executed several foreigners over the years. Vietnam executed 85 people in 2007 for drug-related crimes.
Human Rights Watch reported that the ongoing "war on drugs" in the Philippines has been responsible for the deaths of more than 12,000 people since President Duterte began the campaign in 2016.
Despite the threat of death penalties or severe prison sentences throughout most of Southeast Asia, a few traveler hubs along the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail still openly advertise drugs without fear of repercussion.
Vang Vieng in Laos, famous for tubing on the river and a once-rambunctious party scene, has restaurants and bakeries preparing special consumables. The Gili Islands in Indonesia, particularly Gili Trawangan, have magic mushrooms listed openly on bar and restaurant menus. The riverside town of Kampot in Cambodia along with islands such as Koh Rong openly advertise "happy" products (usually pizzas) in restaurants.