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Cannabis-flavoured gummies, ‘CBD’ massages in Thailand: Why Singaporean visitors must beware

SINGAPORE and BANGKOK: Singaporeans are known to flock to the Thai capital, Bangkok, to unwind, shop and eat. But in the past year, such activities have taken on another dimension as Thailand became the first Asian country to legalise the use of cannabis.

After the kingdom removed cannabis from its list of controlled drugs last June, shops peddling all manner of cannabis-related products “came shooting out like mushrooms”, in the words of CNA’s Thailand correspondent Saksith Saiyasombut.

By some estimates, about 5,000 cannabis businesses have sprouted up across the country — 1,000 of them in Bangkok alone — he told the programme Talking Point, in an episode on how Singaporeans can avoid falling foul of Singapore’s laws while abroad.

Dispensaries stocking different strains of cannabis — also known as marijuana, ganja and weed — restaurants serving cannabis-infused dishes and drinks as well as spas offering massages that use oils with cannabis derivatives are now a part of Bangkok’s landscape.

Singapore’s law against drug consumption is clear: Citizens or permanent residents found to have abused drugs overseas will be treated as if they had done so within Singapore. Consumption of a controlled drug could land them in jail for one to 10 years and/or with a fine of up to S$20,000.

But things could get tricky. Some shops in Thailand claim their products such as gummies are merely cannabis-flavoured and do not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.

Spas offering cannabis massages may also assure guests that their oils contain only cannabidiol (CBD) — an ingredient in cannabis that does not cause a high and has been used to treat seizures — and no THC.

So how should curious travellers from Singapore navigate?

WATCH: Curious about cannabis? Dos and don’ts for Singaporeans in Thailand | Talking Point (23:16)

For massages, it is possible for CBD oils to contain THC, said Chulalongkorn University associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences Sornkanok Vimolmangkang.

“If you use a little, I don’t think it’ll show up in your body. But (if) people are using it every day and heavily … it could show up.”

Chulalongkorn University biochemistry associate professor Kuakarun Krusong, meanwhile, found in a study last year that over 30 per cent of samples of in-house cannabis-flavoured beverages sold in eateries contained amounts of THC higher than what was permitted under Thai law.

And when Ser had six cannabis-flavoured beverages tested, the laboratory results showed that four of them contained THC when they all were not supposed to.

Kuakarun recently told the programme Undercover Asia that products should be clearly labelled to indicate any THC content, as some consumers may have health problems or do not want to consume THC.

WATCH: The highs and lows of Thailand’s cannabis rush | Undercover Asia (46:28)

Where Singapore’s rules are concerned though, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said last year that when someone is found to have consumed drugs, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) will investigate. If consumption is unwitting, usually no offence is committed.

As for eating food cooked with cannabis, Talking Point invited some Thais to dine at Kiew Kai Ka and do self-tests for THC for three days after that. Their tests all were negative.

But Rasmon Kalayasiri, the director of Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for Addiction Studies, cautioned that lab tests and tests of hair samples could be more sensitive than self-test kits. “The THC in the leaves is very low in concentration,” she said.

Besides the risk of addiction, studies have found that cannabis can harm brain development, attention, memory and learning.

Current controls forbid public smoking of cannabis and its sale to people under the age of 20, pregnant women and breast-feeding women. It is also banned at state schools.

But what would prevent people who grow their own marijuana from smoking it at home, questioned Termsak Chalermpalanupap, co-ordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The risk of underage cannabis use is underlined in the case of Jeff (not his real name), a 17-year-old in Korat who started the habit at around age 13. “Every house has it. My friends and I are all growing it,” he said.

Now when he does not get to smoke cannabis, he would “easily get agitated” and feel “moody”. He added: “When you become addicted and you try to quit, it’s hard.”

Last year, there was a 71 per cent increase in the number of cannabis abusers caught, from 138 in 2021 to 236, reported the CNB. Most of those caught last year were new abusers; about 61 per cent were below the age of 30.

Some young abusers see it as a “way of bonding with other people”, said addiction psychotherapist Andy Leach at Visions by Promises, the addiction therapy arm of mental health service provider Promises Healthcare.

Whereas previous generations of youth would bond over drinks at a pub, a young client told Leach: “None of us really want to do that any more. We’d much rather smoke marijuana together.”

“He said he didn’t want to wake up with a hangover,” recounted Leach. “Alcohol was more expensive, (while) marijuana is cheaper. It’s a more appealing alternative to the youth of today.”

WATCH: Why are youths getting hooked on cannabis? | Talking Point (23:02)

But “weed is a gateway to other drugs”, said drug offender Ben (not his real name), 29, who started smoking weed at age 15 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.

“Maybe (abusers) feel that weed isn’t that serious initially. … But once you start using weed, I’m sure the people who introduced that to you … will start to introduce other drugs.”

For United States-based addiction recovery coach Joel Henry, weaning himself off cannabis has been worth it. Struggling six years ago, he beat his addiction as he did not want to be using drugs for the rest of his life.

“My life’s been improved tenfold,” he said. “I’m much healthier, I sleep better, relationships have improved. That was the big thing that I’ve always wanted.”

Watch Talking Point’s two-part special here and here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm. And watch the Undercover Asia episode, Cannabis Cowboy Country, here.

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