Aaron clinks a champagne-sized bottle of Singha with his friends and turns it over above his head, guzzling the ice cold beer. No glasses — this is the kind of night for drinking straight from big bottles. Just three short days ago, the 23-year-old was in Australia stressing over an exam. Now he’s kicking back in the tropics with his best buddies. Life is good.
They’ve claimed one of the prime outdoor tables, with a view of the girls on the dance floor and the main road at their backs. Snakes of white light twist around the branches in the trees above and the music is so loud, they have to shout to be heard. A freshly-rolled joint is being passed around and it’s perfect, as always: two extra-long papers stitched together, straight and conical, the accordion “W” of sturdy, folded paper for a filter. Without hesitation, Aaron reaches for the joint and does as he would back home, filling his lungs with the warm, sweet burn. It’s an idyllic moment between a few young friends on a two-week break in Chiang Mai.
Cake, a young Thai bartender, has witnessed this kind of moment countless times.
“Foreigners smoke ganja here sometimes. The police might come, but usually they’re okay,” she says from behind the bar, cracking open two beers and handing them to waiting tourists. “But you never see Thai people smoking ganja in public. We don’t do that.”
If you believe everything on TV, Thailand may seem like an “anything goes” tropical paradise somewhere beyond the borders of moral decency and the law. Most tourists seem to know little more about the culture than lessons they’ve gleaned from movies like “The Hangover Part II,” where debauchery reigns and drugs are as common as sticky rice.
“Thai people think ganja is the same as heroin or cocaine,” Cake says. “Alcohol is everywhere. Men can buy sex without anyone noticing, but when we see a Farang smoking ganja on the street, they might as well be pushing a needle into their arm.”
In Thailand, foreigners are referred to as Farang. A word usually reserved for “white foreigner,” it suggests more than ethnicity or skin color. Farang are always rich, hard to comprehend and sometimes dangerous. The foreigner is simultaneously liked, disliked, desired and feared. Every Thai person knows a family saved from financial disaster by a wealthy Farang. Everyone has seen one act like a belligerent lunatic in public.
Aaron and his friends circle the dance floor, closing in on the girls they were ogling from their table. The joint pressed out in an ashtray, they are happily unaware of any danger.
“If the cops come, they’ll probably be okay,” says Cake with a laugh. “Farang have money.”
The Superstar Bar
For many in the west, Thai Stick is more famous than Thailand. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the country’s most infamous export dominated the American marijuana market and assured that many would forever link the two. Many may imagine a bohemian paradise filled with stoned-out villagers giggling over plates of Pad Thai, but that’s not the reality.
The avalanche of Thai Stick onto American streets wasn’t the world finally getting a taste of a centuries-old southeast Asian tradition. It isn’t khat from Africa or ayahuasca from South America. It was the product of a handful of enterprising Farang, looking for a way to keep the party going and creating one of the most successful drug cartels in history.
An aging American hippie, an Australian smuggler and the black sheep from an aristocratic British family worked out of their headquarters in Bangkok, the Superstar Bar. Against all odds, they created a world-wide distribution network, spreading Thai weed into Australia, Europe and the USA. Its popularity is a product of western entrepreneurship, as most Thai people have never heard of it. In fact, opium has a richer history there.
“I’ve never seen a Thai person smoke out,” says Julie, an American ex-pat living in Koh Samui. “If they’re doing it, they’re doing it behind closed doors.”
Thailand isn’t tolerant toward drugs; their laws are among the strictest in the world. Its reputation for tolerance is more the result of police apathy and ineptitude. Cops are virtually non-existent after dinner time; they’re home with their families.
“We don’t have the police presence that we have in the U.S. There’s this sense of total freedom. But, if I have a problem, I think twice before going to the authorities,” Julie continues. “Not all cops are bad, but better to keep your head down and blend in. It’s not worth the risk.”
Stumbling in a Foreign Country
Thai cops don’t want foreign prisoners; their prisons are already overcrowded. They want money. Policemen in Thailand are among the lowest paid workers in the country with their average salaries at just $185 a month — less than half of the national average. Even the most righteous on the force feels the need to subsidize. In situations like these, there is very little pushback. Thais expect some level of corruption in their authority figures. In many villages, the richest member of the community is on the police force. As Farang are perceived to be rich, the average tourist can look like a walking ATM. Abuses of power abound.
Foggy from a full day of drinking, Mark and his friend found themselves buying a small bag of cannabis from their bartender.
“I took a look at it and thought, ‘What am I doing with a bag of weed on Khao San Road,’” says Mark. “I suddenly felt uneasy about the whole situation.”
The two young Americans bolted, searching for a secluded spot to smoke the evidence as fast as possible. Down a small side street, they settled on the curb away from the crowd.
“Before I even knew it, there were two officers standing over us,” he says.
Mark had shoved the pot into his pocket. Somehow, the cops already knew where the bag was, suggesting this wasn’t a random bust.
“They ignored my friend entirely. They must have had some information as to who they were looking for,” he says. “They told me I had 20 minutes to bring $600 to a restaurant at the end of the street. At the time, I was worried about my predicament. In retrospect, it was a scam.”
Rather than going to the restaurant with the bribe money, Mark rang a lawyer back home. Passport in police hands, he was stranded in Bangkok until the charges were dropped a month later. The grand total was $2,000 in legal fees rather than the initial $600 bribe, but it could have been a lot worse. He avoided jail entirely.
“I doubt I would have made it too long in Thai jail,” Mark confesses.
A Kindly Stranger Appears
Steven, a British backpacker in his 30s, traveled through Koh Phangan on his tour of Southeast Asia. Thousands of foreigners storm the tiny island each month for the electric, chemically-fueled Full Moon Party, where drug use is rampant and the dealers aren’t the only ones cashing in.
“When the cops found the marijuana in my shorts, they were laughing because they were celebrating,” he says. “They were probably standing around there for hours. Suddenly this big fish comes along and they were happy.”
Busted with just 1.5 grams, Steven didn’t have the $1,500 the police set for bail – he only had half of that in his bank account. Frightened and with no way to contact family or friends back home, he plead for help through the bars of his cell to a Thai man who may or may not have understood him. He begged the man to seek out some recently-met travel acquaintances.
“It was a really long wait for them to show up,” says Steven. “But they did, God bless them.”
Two days after his arrest, he was released on bail with a court date looming in three weeks. A lawyer offered to release him, if he allowed them to keep the bail money. He refused. Three weeks later, handcuffed to a policeman and escorted off a boat en route to his trial, he met the lawyer again. He was waiting on the dock with a sweetened offer: they’d accept half the price.
Steven relented and let the cops keep $750 of his bail money. After pleading guilty and paying a $15 fine, he was led through the court building in shackles and got a rare glimpse into the mechanics of the bribery machine.
“The lawyer guy was handing everyone 500 baht notes [$15 USD] as we were going through the whole court system. He was giving this guy 500 baht, and this guy 500 baht. All these 500 baht notes that I had given him, my bail money,” he says with a laugh. “I went up to Bangkok as quick as I could and left Thailand. I didn’t return for 13 years.”
Going Down Fighting
Not having the money to pay is one thing; disobeying the Thai police is another. Louis, a musician from L.A., was leaving the Reggae Bar in Chiang Mai after performing with friends late one night. When he reached his motorbike, half a dozen police officers confronted him. With 6 grams of marijuana hidden in the seat of his bike, he didn’t stick around to chat. He tried to run. Given the same offer that all foreigners seem to get, Louis chose to fight against corruption.
“That night, they offered me a way to pay my way out. They asked for $200 but I wasn’t thinking right. I’m American. I thought I’ll go to court and pay legit instead of paying the police.”
Locked up in Chiang Mai Prison, Louis waited for his court date in 12 days. His small cell was crowded with about 70 inmates, mostly Burmese, Thai and Indians, all sharing the same small space and one toilet.
“You can’t even move when you sleep, everyone lying on top of each other on the bare cement floor. It’s a nightmare,” he shares.
His trial date kept getting delayed. Each time, he was hauled to the court in the morning and brought back to his cell disappointed in the evening. “They don’t use handcuffs when you go to court, they shackle you like it’s the 18th century,” he says.
Finally, 62 days after he was arrested, Louis appeared before the judge and was released. A few days later, he was deported from the country.
Bring Your Bank Card
Most tourists who smoke marijuana in Thailand go home with great memories and no legal problems. Thai people are world-famous for being kind, patient and non-violent. Many cops don’t take bribes and those who do are usually business-like about it. In many ways, Thailand is safer than the U.S.
On the surface, getting caught with marijuana in Thailand might not be any worse than being arrested in the American backweeds, like Mobile or Little Rock. But, in the U.S., the accused are offered a court-appointed lawyer, cops aren’t ensnaring you to subsidize their salaries and you are an American citizen, with all the rights that come with it.
Thai cops love arresting drug users, even the hapless tourist with one joint in her pocket. They pose for photos, lording over their trophies with big-game grins splashed all over the national news and websites that reach back home.
“A few of my friends smoke here in private homes. I’ve never been stopped and searched in the four years since I returned,” Steven shares. “If I see someone doing it brazenly, I would probably say, ‘you want to be careful with that, mate.’”
And have that bank card handy.