Thailand has tough drug laws despite the widespread use and availability of many illegal drugs in the country. Getting caught dealing or trafficking even small amounts of drugs can bring someone a death sentence or life in prison. Possession of even a small amount of marijuana carries a maximum sentence of five years. Buddhism regards drug use as a sin and even has a special hell reserved for drug users. King Bhumibol Adulyadej once said, “Drugs are the root cause of Thailand’s ills... The nation must work together to fight this.” He has also said, narcotics have "become an instrument of destruction... The drugs subjugate the body, the money subjugates the soul."

The use amphetamines, opiates and marijuana is common and widespread and drugs are sold relatively openly in some places. Opium use by the hill tribes in northern Thailand is legal, Within Thailand, the media and many Thais tend to blame their country’s drug problem on outsiders, particularly Myanmar for producing the drugs that Thais consume and the West for making drugs glamorous.

In the mid-nineteenth century, narcotics were seen as a domestic problem, but one limited mostly to the Chinese. By the 1960s, drug use was considered a security or a foreign affairs issue. Only by the late 1970s did Thailand recognize drugs as a growing domestic problem. By that time, in addition to organic narcotic production, there was a dramatic rise in the production and use of synthetic drugs. Narcotics-related crimes ranked third among all types of criminal activity in 1983. In that year, there were 28,992 convictions for drug offenses nationally and 11,777 in Bangkok, which resulted in the overcrowding of prisons and detention centers. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the 1960s and 70s Thailand was famous for Thai sticks—a kind of marijuana that back then was regarded as relatively potent. Thailand is also the source of bongs. Some people in the town Mae Sot area of Thailand grow tobacco and marijuana in backyard gardens. They smoke the tobacco and feed the marijuana, it is said, to their pigs to increase their appetite.

Thailand is a transit country for illegal drugs entering the international market, with millions of methamphetamine pills trafficked through the borders last year. According to the CIA World Factbook: Thailand in a minor producer of opium, heroin, and marijuana; transit point for illicit heroin en route to the international drug market from Burma and Laos; eradication efforts have reduced the area of cannabis cultivation and shifted some production to neighboring countries; opium poppy cultivation has been reduced by eradication efforts; also a drug money-laundering center; minor role in methamphetamine production for regional consumption; major consumer of methamphetamine since the 1990s despite a series of government crackdowns.

Poor people sniff solvents from plastic bags.


Articles on Illegal drugs:

Drug Tourism in Thailand

Many people visit Thailand specifically because it is easy to get drugs there. In the 1990s it was estimated that about 20 percent of the 150,000 people that go on treks in northern Thailand do so to sample opium and marijuana. One trekking operator told AP, "A group will go to a trekking operator and say, 'We want to do a trek, but there has to be opium.' If the operator says no, they go find someone who will."

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence of the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

Psilocybin mushrooms— known as” het khli kiwai” (“buffalo-shit mushrooms)—are found in Thailand , particularly in the south on the rainy Gulf of Thailand islands. Technically not illegal, they are served up in mushroom omelettes and sometimes collected by foreigners. Use of them of them can be a little dodgy as the dosage can vary greatly. Lonley Planet reported the case of one foreigner who swam to his death after eating a magic mushroom omelette on Ko Pha-Ngam.

See Ecstacy and Raves: ; Ecstacy Dangers:

Busted for Drugs in Thailand

Thai prisons are filled with hundreds of foreigners serving life sentences for drug trafficking. At Bangkok’s Ban Kwon Prison they are packed into crowded cells, where prisoners reportedly eat cockroaches and rats to survive. Some of guesthouses on Khao Sae Road encourage travelers to visit the Australians, Danes, Italians, Americans who have been locked up there.

A 34-year-old Briton was arrested for selling amphetamines told the Independent he was in room with some Thais when the police made a raid. He was the only one who was surprised. “That was because I couldn’t read the sign on the door which said the room was going to be raided.” He was the only person who was arrested and taken to the station. The Briton was arrested for exporting drugs, which carries a 20 year prison sentence. Bail was set at $40,000. “My biggest mistake was not to paying off the police,” he said. “They got angry about that and that is why they invented the charge of exporting.”

Several movies and television shows have been made about young foreigners who have been locked on drug charges in Thailand.”Brokedown Palace” (1999)—directed by Jonathan Kaplan and starring Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale and Bill Pullman—is about two American friends imprisoned in Thailand for drug smuggling. Because it presents a critical view of the Thai legal system, most scenes were filmed in the Philippines. In the film best friends Alice Marano (Claire Danes) and Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale) take a trip to Thailand and meet a charming Australian man, who offers to take them to Hong Kong. They take up the offer. In the airport, the girls are seized by the police and shocked to discover that one of their bags contains heroin. The two girls are interrogated by the Thai police and tricked into signing a confession, and given sentence of 33 years in prison.

Drug Abuse in Thailand

In 2001, The Nation reported: “Thailand has almost 2.6 million drug abusers aged five to 68, including 2.4 million methamphetamine users, according to an official health survey. Particularly worrisome was a finding that 4 per cent of five-to-nine-year olds have already started to experiment with the consumption and sale of methamphetamine pills, or ya ba, the report said. Of the total number of abusers, 890,530 were found to be drug addicts, 821,963 of whom were addicted to methamphetamine, 26,656 to marijuana, 19,074 to heroin, 6,593 to glue-sniffing and 5,977 to the stimulant plant krathom. [Source: The Nation, November 29, 2001]

The survey was conducted between June and September 2001 by 20,000 health officials, who visited all 70,000 villages in the country. It was the most intensive study of the drug problem undertaken up to that time. The Northeast has the highest number of substance abusers with 797,297, followed by 477,270 in the South, 413,954 in the central region, and 399,671 in the North. In Bangkok, there are 566,163 drug abusers, most of whom are methamphetamine users. The highest number of drug addicts are in the 15 to 24 age group, though those using opiates are mostly aged 25 to 59.

In another survey— conducted among 46,936 students aged 10 to 22 between July and October 2001— 6.5 percent of the respondents said they had used or were still using drugs. Of all the drug users, 58.5 percent said they were addicted to methamphetamines, 42.2 percent to marijuana, 33.6 percent to sleeping pills or hallucinogenic drugs, 16.6 percent to solvents, 11.3 percent to Ecstasy, 10.5 percent to the so-called "love drug'', 8.7 percent to ketamine, 7.6 percent to heroin, 5.6 percent to opium, 4.9 percent to cocaine, and 4.9 percent to morphine. However, 71.2 percent of methamphetamine users said they had already quit. Twenty-five percent said they were still using drugs, 2.3 percent admitted to selling drugs and the rest said they were both users and pushers. [Source: Nattawud Daoruang

In the survey 70 percent of marijuana users and 57 percent of users of sleeping pills or hallucinogenic drugs said they had already quit. Most users said they turned to drugs out of curiosity. The other reasons given for their involvement with drugs were the need to imitate their peers, family problems, fraud, nearness of drug sources, want of money, and intimidation.

Confessions of a Teenage Drug User in Thailand

In an interview in 2001, four months after first taking drugs, Bangkok area teenager Nattawud (Gor) Daoruang said: "t is easy to start taking drugs, but it is very difficult to quit. Believe me I know it well. Your life will never be the same again. Please don't try it even one time. Don't ruin all your future by experimenting with drugs like me." [Source: Nattawud Daoruang

On experimenting with drugs, Nattawud Daoruang said: “I am not going to take drugs. I think because I saw the news and I could see people getting crazy about taking drugs. I wanted to be part of the group but I still said no to drugs. If they try to give drugs to me that means they are not a good friend because drugs are not a good thing. You can get drugs easily. Just tell someone who takes drugs and they will get it for you. I am just doing it now because I want to be bad. I have already promised my parents and friends that [next month] I will stop smoking and everything. I am in control.”

On experimenting with marijuana and then amphetamines he said: “They had some marijuana and they asked me to take it. I said I don't mind so we started to prepare the plastic bottle. I am not taking it that often! I can't control myself. Myself I think marijuana is worse because it made me do something that I can't remember. That is scary. Marijuana is a bad drug. With amphetamine I was more in control of my mind. With marijuana I lost control. I might have done something very stupid. I think I have gone forward because I am now stronger. I know how bad it is and how scary it can be. It has made be stronger to stop drugs.”

On becoming more heavily involved in drugs he said: “I was really tired and I needed the pills to keep me awake at school. Give me more time. Trust me. You promised me remember? You said that you would always be there for me if I asked. You can't quit. I am asking for help now. They then started to take one pill each. I didn't ask for any. I just sat down there and started to read my Harry Potter book. Inside me I felt like I really wanted it, but I stopped myself. I kept on reading. It was there in front of me and the silver foil too. So, I started to smoke it. After I inhaled it for the third time I got angry with myself and stopped myself from taking any more. It was very difficult for me to only take a little and then stop before I had finished. My mum gave me an amulet to protect me and to remind myself to quit taking drugs. She said to me to be strong.

On his fight against drugs, he said: “I am clean. [The last time I took drugs was] on my 16th birthday, about 4 weeks ago. I won't go to places where people are buying or selling drugs any more. I learned my lesson. First my mum said she wouldn't come [to the police station]. She said she wanted me to go to drug rehab. That really upset me because I had stopped drugs now for nearly 4 weeks.”

Addicted to Drugs and Imprisoned in Thailand

Six months after he admitted he had a drug problem, it looked like Gor was fully on the road to recovery. At the end of the year he had landed himself a job as a columnist at the Bangkok Post. However, his quick recovery was deceiving. The drugs had affected him more than we had first realized. Over the following four years he relapsed back onto drugs half a dozen times. Finally, in 2005, he was arrested by the police for drug possession. In August 2006, the court sentenced him to six years in prison. This was then reduced to three years because he pleaded guilty. [Source: Nattawud Daoruang

On being addicted to drugs,Nattawud (Gor) Daoruang said: “I first started it just for fun. My friends were doing it at my house so I wanted to try too. But, then I quickly became addicted. I am not in control. The drugs control me. I can't stop. When you see it in front of you, face to face with it often, I can't stop myself I can't do it. I tried to stop myself but I couldn't. I don't want my parents to know that I have been doing it. I am sure that if [my father] got angry with me I would take drugs more and more and more and I wouldn't stop. I slept all day in the classroom. I didn't learn properly for the last two weeks. Then after school I took drugs. I will stop taking drugs. If I go around thinking I can't do it then I won't be able to do it. I think I can, so I will do it. “

On his struggle to quit drugs he said: “ My two friends were talking about it and I couldn't stop myself. If someone is taking drugs in front of me or if I go into the toilets at school and I can smell the drugs I am tempted. It makes me want to take it. It was exciting because I was doing something I was not allowed to do. I was with my friends, sharing something with them which made me happy. What I can do is be strong. That is the only thing I can do. And, I will try and think about my parents, my work and my future. I agree with what I see on the adverts and think drugs are bad. But, when I am with friends and in that mood everything changes. We forget everything. I just concentrate on my friends. The teachers just say that drugs are bad but they don't say in what way. They just say it is bad don't try it. I can't stop being with my friends. “

On being sent to a drug rehab center he said: “My uncle said that he wanted me to go to Chulalongkorn Hospital for drug therapy. I went there twice a week. It was interesting because I learned some things. Later, my uncle found a place called Tanyalak in Rangsit which is a famous drug rehab. He wanted me to go there. It was boring. Very boring. There was nothing to do. Nothing interesting. I don't know. I am confused. I can't think about anything. I don't know what I am going to do next If I don't die before or take more drugs.”

On using drugs at the drug rehab center he said: “We had a small party and there were drugs there too. All of my friends did it. They took amphetamine. I alone didn't take any because I had quit it. But, in the end I took some because everyone else was doing it. I thought I could just take one and then quit it. But, I was wrong. Once I started I couldn't stop. We were sharing but I think myself I used 10 pills those two days. We can do anything we like [at the drug rehab]. No-one is going to try and run away. The worst thing here is the medicine they make you take. The only other bad thing is when we run out of money as we won't have anything to do. It is sometimes boring when there is nothing to do.”

Reflecting on his time using drugs, he said: “I feel better. I don't need drugs anymore. Now I have quit school. This year I am not going to learn. Even two months after I stopped I couldn't concentrate or make simple decisions about my life. The best way [to quit] is not to go out and hang around with your friends who are still taking drugs. I am really sorry that I didn't listen to my parents before. I shouldn't have tried it. Even one time. Just that one time changed everything. I used to be in the top class. My grades were always 3.5 and higher. But, after I started taking drugs, I missed school a lot and got into trouble with the police. Drugs are fun to start with. But soon you will be down in hell. It is important to understand that you won't know you are down there. If [my parents] had given up on me I don't know where I would be today.
I want every parent in the world to know and understand teenagers. If I can only stop one child taking drugs or help a parent to understand their child on drugs, I would be happy.”

A widely circulated video and photograph from the early 2000s showed a desperate Thai drug addict holding a woman hostage with a knife around her neck. After he saw that Nattawud (Gor) Daoruang said: “It makes me scared. Scared that I might be like him. I don't want to be like that. I think it is possible if I keep taking drugs. That is why I want to stop. Sometimes I watched the anti-drug adverts with my family. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. If I become like that man in the newspaper what are my parents going to say?

Heroin Addicts in Thailand

In the 1990s, there were an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 heroin addicts in Thailand. Many of them injected the drug which was sold in colored plastic tubes for less than a dollar each. At that time Pakistan, Thailand, Iran and China accounted for most of the world's heroin consumption. In these places prices were low and total sales was probably less than $10 billion. Between 1993 and 2000 the number and opium and heroin addicts dropped by 80 percent.

Imprisoning drug injectors and not providing them with clean needles may be a major threat to public health. See AIDS

Articles on Illegal drugs:

Tough Love Buddhist Treatment for Addicts

The monastery at Wat Tham Krabok runs a treatment center for heroin and opium addicts that combines counseling, herbal therapy and job training. Tham Krabol Monastery north of Bangkok gives heroin and opium addicts a free 10-day treatment that begins with a vow to Buddha to stop using drugs and the downing of a herbal concoction that causes them to vomit immediately and "clear poisonous drug residue from the body and helps eliminate the physical desire for drugs." The monks have treated more than 100,000 addicts with a variety of concoctions and herbal pills and steam baths and claim a 70 percent success rate.

For the most part, treatment and counseling service for addicts is minimal. Government money goes primarily into enforcement and education not treatment. Addicts are generally looked upon with disgust rather than sympathy and people don’t want to see tax-payer money wasted on them. Overcoming drug addiction is viewed as matter of will and discipline and something an addict has to deal with himself. Treatment centers are generally like boot camps or prisons, and even these places can’t keep up with the demand.

Alcoholics Anonymous-type programs are available in Asia but not widely used. The prisons are filled with addicts and small time dealers. About 70 percent of the 200,000 inmates in Thai prisons are there on drug-related offenses. One in five are women. Many of them have small children that are in prison with them.

Betel Nut

Betel nut (also known as pan) is consumed in some parts of Thailand. It is a mildly narcotic nut (seed) that comes from the betel palm (“Areca catechu”). An estimated one tenth of humanity regularly chews betel nut. In many places, everybody chews betel nut, even children. It can be bought at almost any store. Many people grow it in their backyards. Some people even believe that ghosts chew it. Others regard it as magical and offer it gods and use it to ward off the evil eye.

In Thailand, the consumption of areca nut has declined over time. The younger generation rarely chews it, especially in the cities. People that chew tend to live in tribal areas and/or over 50 years old. Even so, small trays of betel leaves and sliced tender areca nut are sold in markets and used as offerings in Buddhist shrines. Ko Mak in Thailand was named after the betel (areca) nut.. Use is widespread enough that the government has launched campaigns to discourage betel nut chewing for health reasons. [Source: Wikipedia]


Mitragyna speciosa—commonly called kratom, kratum, or krathom—is a tropical deciduous and evergreen tree in the coffee family (Rubiaceae) native to Southeast Asia in the Indochina and Malesia floristic regions. Its leaves contain mitragynine and are chewed as an opiate substitute and stimulant in Thailand and Southeast Asia, primarily among the working class. Said to be similar to qat used in Yemen, it has a relatively long history of human use. It is illegal in Thailand and said to be addictive. Nevertheless it is widely used.

Kratom leaves have traditionally been used for its medicinal properties treat a large number of health problems and have been chewed like coca leaves for their stimulating effect. It was originally outlawed in the 1940s because of success in curing opium addicts, reducing the Thai government's tax revenue from opium distribution. [Source: Wikipedia]

Mitragyna speciosa trees usually grow to a height of three to nine meters and can be either evergreen or deciduous depending on the climate and environment in which they are grown. Forty unique compounds had been discovered in M. Speciosa leaves, including many alkaloids. Among these are mitragynine (once thought to be the primary active constituent), mitraphylline, and 7-hydroxymitragynine (which is currently the most likely candidate for the primary active chemical in the plant).

Kratom has been traditionally chewed, in raw leaf form, by people in Thailand and especially in the southern peninsula. Kratom is also used in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia where it grows naturally. Traditionally used, kratom is not seen as a abused drug and there is no stigma associated with using it. In southern Thailand, kratom has been a part of traditional culture for thousands of years and is common in traditional cultural performances and in agriculture. In southern Thailand, kratom chewers generally start at around the age of 25 and many continue to chew the leaves for the rest of their lives. The average number of leaves consumed is between 10 and 60 daily. In southern Thailand, upwards of 70 percent of the male population uses kratom on a daily basis in some areas. There use of kratom is considered equivalent to drinking coffee.

There has never been a single documented lethal case of kratom overdose. As a medicine it has been used as an antidiarrhoeal, a treatment for opium dependence, and rarely to increase the duration of coitus. It is currently being studied as a treatment of diabetes mellitus. Many chronic pain patients report that kratom has greatly improved the quality of their lives. A general consensus exists in Thailand among leaders, public health officials, academics and policymakers that kratom use and dependence causes little, if any, health risks.A derivative of mitragynine has also been shown to trigger a strong anti-nociceptive effect while, at the same time, having less side effects than conventional painkillers.

Since one of the main pharmacological target of Mitragyna alkaloids is the endogenous opioid system, kratom preparations have been shown to be effective in treating opioid withdrawal and chronic pain. While kratom itself is mildly addictive, the withdrawal symptoms from cessation of kratom have been shown to be very weak and may include mild joint pain or sleeplessness.

Possession of kratom leaves is illegal in Thailand. The Kratom Act 2486, which went into effect in 1943, law makes planting the tree illegal and requires existing trees to be cut down. This law has mostly been ineffective as the tree grows wild in many parts of the country. Today, kratom is classified in category 5 of the Narcotics Acts (1979), in the same category as cannabis and magic mushrooms (the least punitive category). Thai government programs aimed at destroying kratom trees by burning forests or chopping large sections of kratom forests down often destroyed not only the kratom trees but also other trees and wildlife in these areas., which are often untouched rainforests with sensitive ecosystems.

In 2010, the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board proposed decriminalizing kratom and affirmed its use as an integral part of Thai culture. The ONCB concluded that decades of unproblematic use, and an absence of health and social harm, make prohibiting the leaf unnecessary and counterproductive. According to the ONCB's report when kratom was mae illegal in 1943 “the government was levying taxes from users and shops involved in the opium trade. Because of the increasing opium costs, many users were switching to kratom to manage their withdrawal symptoms. However, the launch of the Greater East Asia War in 1942 and declining revenues from the opium trade pushed the Thai government into action to curb and suppress competition in the opium market by making kratom illegal." Indiana is he only state in the United States that has banned kratom (technically it bans kratom's two active alkaloids—mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine—not kratom itself).

Smoking in Thailand

In 2001, about 12 million Thais (about 23.4 percent of the population smoked. According to the Thailand Tobacco Information Center, the percentage of Thai male smokers declined from 48.8 percent in 1986 to 38.9 percent in 1999. The number of women smokers declined from 4.1 percent to 2.4 percent in that period.

Many monks smoke. Tobacco is regarded as okay by some Buddhists because it isn’t considered an intoxicant. Attitudes are starting to change. Sometimes when American movies are shown on television smoking is blotted out while censures let foul language and violence filter through.

The Thai Tobacco Monopoly was run many years by Thailand’s Finance Ministry.

On cigarette packages are graphic health warnings that cover 85 percent of the package.

Thailand’s Tough Laws Against Smoking Ban in Public Places

Thailand has tough anti-smoking laws. In 2002, AP reported: “A tough new anti-smoking law came into effect Thailand, making it illegal to light up in virtually every indoor public place including air-conditioned restaurants and barber shops. Business establishments that fail to control smoking by patrons will face fines of up to 20,000 baht ($465) and the smokers will be hit for 2,000 baht ($46). Pubs and other night entertainment places are exempt because they are not frequented by children. [Source: AP, November 8, 2002]

Thailand has had a strong anti-smoking lobby and is one of the few Asian countries to make a serious effort to highlight the dangers of tobacco since the 1970s. Many public places were already smoke-free and the new law widens the scope by including restaurants and other areas. But realizing the difficulty of enforcing the ban uniformly, the Public Health Ministry has said that it would initially focus only on air-conditioned restaurants, sending out inspectors for surprise checks.

"Thailand’s tobacco control efforts are being hailed as among the most successful in Asia, with new regulations implemented every year. How effective these regulations are when put to the test remains to be seen," the Bangkok Post newspaper said in an editorial Friday. The Post noted that tobacco companies continue to promote their products indirectly through sponsorships of sports and entertainment events. It said the smoking ban could also allow corrupt officials to harass small businesses.

Apart from anti-smoking laws, Thailand also is trying to prevent youngsters from taking up the habit. The Public Health Ministry says 95 percent of smokers in Thailand start before they’re 24. Among places made off limits to smokers under the new law are public buses, taxis, elevators, temples and churches, public toilets, libraries and air-conditioned establishments such as shopping malls, tailor shops, drug stores, gymnasiums and beauty salons. In schools, museums, hospitals, banks, airports and indoor stadiums, smoking will be allowed only in restrooms and private offices.

Keeping American Tobacco Companies Out of Thailand

Up until the late 1980s, the only foreign cigarettes sold in Thailand were purchased at duty-free shops or were smuggled into the country. Even in the late 1990s, American tobacco companies controlled only 3 percent of the market in Thailand compared to 25 percent in some other Asian countries.

American companies have tried to make inroads in Thailand as they have almost everywhere. They were given a boost in 1990, when a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) panel ruled that Thailand had to allow the sales of foreign cigarette brands but it did have the right to restrict cigarette advertising as a public health measure as long as the same rules were applied to foreign and domestic cigarette brands.

After the GATT ruling Thailand was successful in keeping American tobacco companies from moving aggressively into their country. GATT allowed the American tobacco companies in but the efforts of the Thai government to restrict advertising were held up a World Trade Organization ruling and strong anti-smoking laws passed in Thailand.

Anti-smoking advocates that led the fight against the American tobacco companies were appalled by the way American tobacco companies went after the youth market. Student notebooks, T-shirts, kites, baseball caps with the Marlboro logo were given out as freebies. They were able to ban these practices and influence other Asian countries, namely Taiwan and Mongolia, to take similar action.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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