Make no mistake: drugs in Thailand are very illegal. And despite widespread -- and sometimes open -- use in backpacker hotspots such as the Thai islands, you will get jail time for getting caught with any amount of an illegal substance.
Thailand's youngest and first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra -- later ousted in 2014 -- announced a harsh crackdown on illegal drugs in Thailand when she took office in 2011.
Unlike her brother, former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra, whose war on drugs was blamed for an estimated 2,500 deaths in 2003, the new Prime Minister of Thailand's policy is centered around reform and compulsory drug treatment for those caught with illegal substances.
An estimated 50 organized crime groups are involved in moving drugs, particularly methamphetamines, into Thailand from neighboring Myanmar. Although cocaine, heroine, and "hard" drugs can still be found, there has been a general shift to lifestyle and party drugs such as ecstasy and crystal meth -- appealing to the many travelers on holiday who have come to party in Thailand.
Marijuana grows wild and is cultivated in the tropics, making it easy to find in Southeast Asia. Travelers often take advantage of the cheap marijuana in Thailand, even in bars in some places, but it is illegal.
- See some important tips for backpacking in Thailand.
Are Drugs in Thailand Legal?
No! Depending on the quantity of the illegal substance that you are carrying (i.e., more than you can consume in one sitting) Thailand has the right to sentence you to death or life in prison.
Although Thailand hasn't enacted the death penalty for drug-related charges since 2004, Thai prisons contain plenty of travelers sentenced to life who are awaiting either help from their governments or a royal pardon.
If you are busted trafficking drugs in Thailand, there is no guarantee that your embassy will intercede. You'll be on your own, possibly for years, waiting on a bureaucratic -- and often corrupt -- process to finally get you a court date.
Drugs in the Thai Islands
With so many young backpackers enjoying the islands in Thailand, drugs such as magic mushrooms and marijuana are relatively cheap and easy to buy. Haad Rin on the island of Koh Phangan is famous for the monthly Full Moon Party where many travelers try psychedelic mushroom shakes to enhance the experience.
Despite being illegal, drugs can be purchased openly in many bars on Koh Phangan. Undercover police do roam the Full Moon Parties, however, the Mellow Mountain Bar at the end of Sunrise Beach has had mushroom shakes on their menu for more than a decade.
The Eden Bar on the edge of Haad Yuan Beach is famous for parties where LSD and MDMA are often available.
Is Marijuana Legal in Thailand?
No. But more than a few backpackers have fallen victim to a simple-but-effective scam while purchasing weed in Thailand.
When a traveler asks in a bar to purchase marijuana, the bartender sells it to them openly, causing many people to think it's no big deal.
Then he immediately phones an associate who may or may not be a legitimate police officer. The cop then shakes down the traveler, 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. The same product is later resold to the next unsuspecting traveler!
- Learn how to avoid other common scams in Asia.
Buying Prescription Drugs in Thailand
Unlike in the United States where you need a prescription written by a doctor to obtain controlled medications, you can simply walk into many pharmacies in Bangkok or Chiang Mai and purchase prescription drugs -- usually at a fraction of the price found in the West.
While 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, and other drugs.
Even if the pills are legal to obtain in Thailand, that does not mean that you can legally carry them back into your home country without a prescription or medical passport. A strip of Valium may get you a "no-no" wag of the finger, but larger quantities of pills will certainly have you stammering for an explanation in an airport back office.
Magic Shakes and Happy Pizzas in Thailand
Throughout Southeast Asia, 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.
Magic shakes are most widely available in Pai (Northern Thailand) and the islands. The strength of shakes and duration of trips are often unpredictable, leaving some travelers inexperienced with psychedelics in states of fear and panic for hours.
Drugs in Other Parts of Southeast Asia
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.
- See more about the drug laws in Singapore.
Despite the threat of death penalties or severe prison sentences throughout most of Southeast Asia, a few traveler hotspots along the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail still openly advertise drugs without fear of repercussion. Vang Vieng in Laos, famous for their tubing on the river and once-rambunctious party scene, is one such place. The Gili Islands in Indonesia, particularly Gili Trawangan, also have magic mushrooms listed openly on bar and restaurant menus.