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Thailand’s Legendary Marijuana

Recently, there have been signs that the Thai government is softening its stance on marijuana.

Thai Marijuana Farm c. 1977

Credit: Michael Ferguson Advertisement

For decades, Thailand was one of America’s most resolute allies in the war on drugs. After zero tolerance policies left the Kingdom with the highest rate of incarceration in Asia and a methamphetamine ( ya ba ) epidemic that not even the most draconian measures could stop, Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya shocked the nation in 2016 when he conceded that “the world has lost the war on drugs.” Not only did he suggest legalizing methamphetamine, Koomchaya urged his countrymen to view the drug epidemic through the lens of public health, rather than law enforcement. Today, many hope that this new laissez-faire approach will lead to the legalization of the legendary marijuana that was once among the Kingdom’s most famous and valuable exports.

After the United States built military bases in Thailand during the 1960s and stationed tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers there, the marijuana industry exploded and cheap, powerful pot became as readily available as beer.

“They tie together. Put the stick. Make it nice. Sell for GI easy. One, two, or five for one dollar,” recalled a Thai smuggler who got his start selling pot to U.S. soldiers. “Whatever place GI go, it started whenever they need.”

“With an eighty-cent bottle of gin purchased at the PX,” one Vietnam veteran remembers, “you could trade for a pack of twenty Thai sticks.”

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Thai Sticks c. 1974. Photo Michael Ferguson

The first Thai marijuana to reach the United States came in the 1960s via the Army Post Office. The difference between Thai marijuana and most Vietnamese and Cambodian cannabis, was the difference between bathtub corn whiskey and single malt scotch. In 1967, one amazed DEA agent to called it “the Cuban cigar of the marijuana world.”

“Who can forget the first strange-looking Thai Sticks a decade ago! Dense, seedless, stronger than a bull elephant. Years before sophisticated sinsemilla techniques were incorporated into the crop management of U.S. growers,” wrote High Times magazine, the journal of record for pot connoisseurs, “the Thais were, without effort, turning out a superior product.” What sold for $3 per kilo at the farm in Isan, easily fetched $4,000 a kilo in any city in the United States in the early 1970s.

The foreign demand for marijuana produced a boom in Thailand’s poorest region during the 1970s and 80s. North of Udorn on the banks of the Mekong sits Isan, a plateau as large as many American states (62,000 square miles) that floods during monsoon season and is arid and dusty during the dry season. Although rice fields are hard to irrigate and do not yield much, marijuana thrives thanks to the Mekong River, whose tributaries replenish the region with rich, silty soil. Farmers in Northeast Thailand take the same care with their cannabis plants that French vintners take with their grapevines.

“They know how to grow so nice, I mean how to take care of the flower, how to take out the male plant,” said one retired Thai marijuana broker. After they harvested and dried the cannabis sativa flowers (buds), the farmers and their families neatly and uniformly tied them to small bamboo sticks and secured them with threads of hemp fiber.

What made the criminalization of marijuana particularly difficult, not just in Thailand, but certain parts of Southeast Asia, was that it was considered little more than a medicinal or cooking herb with little or no local legal or moral stigma attached. The plant had grown in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam for centuries and various preparations were used to treat: migraine headaches, cholera, malaria, dysentery, asthma, digestion, parasites, and post-childbirth pain.

“Almost every corner, every house, they have it in the yard growing. The older people, they will like it. The working heavy guy, he will like it,” said one retired Thai grower, “but they use for medicine also, when you really feel fever. So if you have nothing there, you can get like one branch, and ground it up.”

Under Thailand’s 1934 Marijuana Act, penalties for any amount of the plant could not exceed one year in prison. When criticized by American officials for tolerating cannabis, Thailand leaders were quick to remind them that drug abuse was not part of their culture.

“The United States has been able to send men to the Moon. It has built sophisticated weapons for its own defense. Why can’t it do anything effective about narcotics getting to its shores,” Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan said in 1977. He reminded the Americans of the rules of capitalism, “Where there are markets, there is bound to be trade, either legal or illegal.” This point was echoed by Alfred McCoy, in his magisterial study, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia , “Driven by myopic moralism, U.S. policy ignores the fundamental dynamics of the drug trade. Over the past two centuries, narcotics have become the major global commodities that operate on fluid laws of supply and demand not susceptible to simple repression.”

A load of Thai Sticks Intercepted by Thai police. Photo Bangkok Post.

During the 1980s, the U.S. government was able to convince and coerce Thailand to partner with them in a war against marijuana. In 1988 alone, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted eight “motherships” that carried 463,000 pounds of Southeast Asian marijuana bound for American shores. However, in the end, the “victory” was Pyrrhic because Thai drug users replaced cannabis with methamphetamine that is today responsible for 90 percent of that nation’s drug arrests.

Recently, there have been signs that the Thai government is softening its stance on marijuana. A research team at Rangsit University received permission from Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board and made a cannabis extract spray for cancer patients. In April, Dr. Arthit Uraitat, the rector of Rangsit University, called on Thailand’s military leaders to legalize medical marijuana.

“Be brave. Let us use medical marijuana legally regardless of the method,” he said in a press conference, “Those who have cancer, they cannot wait. They need the help now, so I think we need to take every shortcut possible.”

Last week, a private company called the Thai Cannabis Corporation announced the start of a five-year cannabis project that will cultivate 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of the plant in the next five years. T he Royal Project Foundation will oversee this effort and Maejo University will provide research support. Thai Cannabis Corporation’s objective is to establish a low-cost model to grow, harvest, and process cannabis plants into oils and extracts. Initially, they will focus on breeding high CBD (cannabidiol) cannabis strains that contain minimal amounts of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in order to comply with the laws of Thailand. “The mission of the Royal Project Foundation is to research and develop appropriate technology to sustainably improve the quality of life for Thailand’s highland communities. I quite agree with the Thai Cannabis Project,” said the director of the Royal Project Foundation Dr. Vijit Thanormthin .

The Royal Project Foundation was established and funded by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1969. An early advocate of sustainable farming, the king sought to improve the quality of life of Thailand’s hill tribes by replacing opium with other crops and also revitalizing Thailand’s forests and safeguarding their water resources for future generations. Cannabis fits very neatly into the Royal Project Foundation’s mandate given that Thailand’s hill tribes were once the world’s premier marijuana growers. The nation is already exporting packaged food, beverages, essential oils, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and cosmetics. Why not marijuana?

While the Thai Cannabis Corporation hopes to include the marijuana that Thailand was once world famous for in their product line, they will only go as rapidly as the law and Thai government will allow. “The mission of the Thai Cannabis Corporation,” said CEO Timothy Luton, “is to provide an excellent return to shareholders by partnering with Thailand’s farmers and scientific researchers to make, at high volumes and affordable prices, cannabis products that are above reproach.”

Thailand’s slow shift towards marijuana legalization stands in stark contrast to America’s anarchic “Green Rush,” the greatest exhibition of human greed since gold was discovered in California in 1849. Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, a foreign army has never occupied Thailand and they have staved off foreign invaders for centuries. Generations of Western businessmen have been baffled by their unique and refined Buddhist sensibility that often seems to value mental equilibrium and social grace as much as profit.

However, behind the smile and behind the wai are some of the toughest people on earth. Rapacious western marijuana speculators looking to get rich quick would be wise to heed the words of Townsend Harris, the American envoy to Siam (Thailand), who wrote in 1856: “It is an old saying here [in Bangkok] that those who come here for business should bring one ship loaded with patience, another loaded with presents, and a third ship for carrying away the cargo.”

Peter Maguire is the author of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade , Facing Death in Cambodia , and Law and War: International Law and American History . He has taught history at Columbia University, Bard College, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Recently, there have been signs that the Thai government is softening its stance on marijuana.

Thai stick strain

The Thai stick I remember, surely, was opium laced. This was late Sixties to mid Seventies and, other than Mexican dirt weed, there was Columbian, which sold for the princely sum of $35/lid. Occasionally, we’d see good red Jamaican, that was it. Growing up in Colorado Springs, home of Ft (Kit) Carson, during the Vietnam War, when Thai stick hit town, it was. for some of us. like the yo-yo, hula hoop or foosball! The stick we were getting woulld have killed anyone in far less time than six hours. Oh, and it was sensimilia, whispily wrapped around a stick. One didn’t smoke it the way it’s being described, here. rather, it was used to spike regular numbers into, “thinking you can fly,” numbers that three people couldn’t finish. Some people swore they were laces with pcp or mda. Opium was and still is my best guess. One thing I never saw. and there was little I didn’t see, in those days, was one of those giant monstrosities, above. If all one wants to do is get totally wasted, wouldn’t it be easier. and a lot cheaper. doing dabs or other easily acquired concentrate? Hell, 32% THC weed is available, 7 days a week, 15 minutes away. No sensimilia, unadulterated, comes close to that. Conclusion: Any Thai stick not laced with opium is obsolete.

I got some around 1979 it was a bright light green, buds were rolled onto a stick, it smelled very good. I remember cutting pieces from it like candy. True it was a very powerful high. Never had anything like it since.

1st time I smoked it was in 1974 when I got it from a soldier returning from Vietnam. The stuff I smoked was dipped in opium & was the best Herb that I ever smoked in my lifetime, Unbelievable high & I’ve smoked almost every strain on the Planet Earth. I would sell my soul for some seed 🙂

My first time using this strain back in the day, all I could say was WOW! 1970’s I could have never made it without Thia stick.

I love this more than ever. I smoked it in the 70’s and feel Thai Sti co was the foundation for my taste in music. Progressive Rock. Also my taste in movies and books. Thank you Thai weed.

Best shit I ever had. Best High Best Taste and at 64 Ive had some. None any better ever.

I loved this stuff back in the late ’70s whenever it came around. Best tasting bud I ever smoked.

I was in Thailand in the 70’s and bought 30 sticks at a time for $25. They were exactly the same smell, taste and high as the Thai sticks i had been buying in California and Washington for a few years. Absolutely the sweetest smelling and tasting marijuana that I have ever had. The high? Powerful and psychedelic. Definitely not a typical sativa high. Colombian weed was an excellent sativa and really the gold standard for a great sativa high. Thai stick took you much farther into psychedelia. Durban poison would be more comparable to the Thai stick high but not nearly as trippy. FIRST: It was NOT dipped in hash oil or opium or anything else. It was just an amazing and pure land race that has been eradicated to extinction by Thailand’s king who decided to start executing growers and dealers in the 90’s. That incredible flavor and taste (and mind bending high) is why so many people thought it was dipped or rolled in something. But I am here to tell you I bought it from people who were the growers and saw for myself how they did it. It was just a wonderful plant growing in perfect conditions that it had evolved in. I am totally familiar with the “caviar” buds in today’s market that are dipped in oil and rolled in kief. Thai stick looked nothing like that. It smelled nothing like any strain sold anywhere today.

It’s an urban legend that Thai sticks were “dipped in opium”. Not true. They were also not dipped in hash oil. The rural small farmers did not produce hash oil. And if the opium thing was true, a lot of stoners in the US would have developed a degree of opium addiction. That didn’t happen. Real Thai sticks were just super strong landrace strains from northeastern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. They were enhanced by a long curing process that kind of fermented them in their own resins. The really top quality stopped coming to the US around 1982. Eventually they stopped tying the sticks and just shipped pressed “stickless Thai”. That ended in 1988 after a few huge busts on the west coast broke up the syndicates bringing it. By then US domestic production and central American imports had taken over anyway. As it came from a very old region with numerous similar strains, there is no single Thai stick strain.

In the mid to late seventies Thai-sticks consisted of small dense buds wrapped around a sliver of bamboo with hemp-fiber and dipped into an opium solution; weighing about 3-4 grams and costing $30-$40. The US government began spraying paraquat on Mexican fields after the Vietnam war, and the Drug War went full swing as a covert cover for the CIA to relocate its drug smuggling operations into Mexico and Central America. The Vietnam pull-out ended the CIA’s use of our military’s C-130’s for drug smuggling from Asia. Thai-stick quickly disappeared and so did any availability of Red-bud Colombian and Colombian-gold. Domestically grown pot from Northern California, Oregon, and Hawaii became most popular. But fake sticks began showing-up as Thai-stick, they were made from low quality Colombian buds loosely wrapped around a small skewer-stick with dark red thread. These sticks were bunk, without the distinctive taste or hallucinogenic high one would experience from real Thai-stick. Never have I seen a Thai-stick dipped in hash oil. I lived in Southern California’s South Bay area at the time and knew very resourceful contacts that could get any variety of the best drugs I wanted. When the availability of Thai-stick or any good Colombian availability ended, “Grown in America” Sensimilla became the new hit. Today I’m a medical grower, and no strain I’ve sampled compares to genuine Thai-stick.

Thai Stick is a rare 100% sativa strain that is native to Thailand and was brought over to the United States during the 70s or 80s, depending on who you ask. This bud gets its name from its unique method of smoking it – typically you skewer the buds on long thin bamboo sticks. These nugs are ti…