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Cannabis, otherwise known as "ganja" in Thailand and Southeast Asia is arguably the most controversial plant in history. To many government and police organizations, it is a dangerous substance and its users are criminals. To others, the plant is considered to be anything from a relatively benign recreational substance to a miracle plant with a myriad of medicinal and industrial uses. Despite the growing trend toward decriminalization of marijuana around the world, many countries, including Thailand and the USA, persist in arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning marijuana users at a staggering rate.
This article analyzes the history of cannabis in Thailand, and the cultural and political factors affecting that history. In particular this article discusses how Cannabis influenced the curious relationship between Thailand and the USA and their entwined cultural and legal history.
2. Cultural History
Like many other parts of the world, Cannabis has a long history of recorded use in Southeast Asia. Cannabis has historically been used in Southeast Asia as: an ingredient, a condiment in foods, a medicine and a source of fiber. The most well known historical example of Cannabis being used as a spice in Thailand is boat noodle soup (kway teeow rua - น้ำซุปก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ). Although the use of cannabis as a spice in Thailand is currently outlawed, cannabis can still be found in provincial markets in the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. Traditional Thai medicine and Thai massage practitioners also historically used cannabis to treat a variety of health conditions. The Thai Institute of Healing Arts describes marijuana, cannabis, cannabis sativa, and cannabis indica as an “analgesic and sedative to control pain”.1
The fibers of the cannabis plant have historically been used for clothing and rope in Thailand. The Hmong in Thailand, a minority ethnic group originally from China, have used hemp as a textile fiber to make clothing and other items.2 Hemp fiber clothing is a popular export item from Thailand even today.
Hemp was also used in early Muay Thai fights. Thai fighters would protect their hands during fights with hemp hand wraps that ended in seashell-shaped knobs over each knuckle. This method of hand-protection would eventually be replaced by Western-style boxing gloves in the 1920’s.3
3. Uncle Sam in Southeast Asia
Thailand’s association with the recreational use of Cannabis first sprang into the international public spotlight during the late 60s. The 1960’s was marked by social upheaval in the U.S., due to having much of the nation’s energy focused on a long drawn-out war in Southeast Asia. Wars throughout human history have proved an ideal vehicle for the cross-pollination of cultural ideas and activities and the United States military experience in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era was no exception to this process.
Thailand hosted the main bases for US soldiers serving in Vietnam. It was also the main R&R destination for soldiers on leave. At any given time during the Vietnam era, there were more US soldiers in Thailand than in Vietnam. In fact, around 80% of U.S. airstrikes in Vietnam were led from bases located in Thailand.
This cooperation between Thailand and the US was based on a so-called “gentleman’s agreement”. Under this agreement, the bases used by American airmen were still considered part of the Royal Thai Air Force and were operated by Thai officers. Thai officers controlled access to the bases, however the US retained command of its American officers in Thailand.
The US soldiers’ experience in Thailand left a series of cultural artifacts in Thailand. This included a series of American-style hotels in Bangkok (Nana, Miami and Rex hotels) and the famous nightlife culture. For example, “Soi Cowboy” is named after an entrepreneurial African American soldier who developed the area.
4. The US Soldier and Marijuana
The Vietnam War introduced a number of U.S. soldiers to the recreational use of cannabis.
From the start of 1965 to the end of 1968, the number of troops stationed in Vietnam grew from 16,000 to 543,000. Troops deployed in the field fighting the Viet Cong often found themselves patrolling through fields of wild-growing cannabis.
A survey in 1966 by the U.S. military command in Saigon found that there were 29 fixed outlets for the purchase of marijuana. Some enterprising individuals removed the tobacco from regular tailor-made cigarettes and repacked them with dried cannabis and sold them by the pack. These pre-rolled and pre-packaged marijuana cigarettes were sold under the brand names Craven "A" and Park Lane.
Reports indicate that US troops began smoking marijuana soon after their arrival in 1963. Although marines were subject to being court-martialed for possessing even the smallest amount of cannabis, the army only prosecuted dealers and users of hard drugs. The arrests for marijuana possession reached a peak of up to 1,000 a week.9
Although there is no official data on the use of cannabis by U.S. soldiers stationed in Thailand, there are records showing that the soldiers stationed in Vietnam clearly had acquired a taste for the plant. Given the reported widespread marijuana use among soldiers who served in Vietnam, it is not inconceivable that Thai entrepreneurs would have catered to the needs of these resting combat troops with an acquired taste for cannabis. Unfortunately, very little seems to have been documented about it.