BANGKOK – Cookies, a popular San Francisco-based cannabis and fashion company, opened its first Asian franchise on January 21 with billowing marijuana smoke, a Buddhist monk’s blessings, Muay Thai boxing and ceremonial drumming within sight of the American embassy.
The razzmatazz included someone wielding a hand-held, long-barreled “leaf blower” pumping bountiful cannabis smoke into eager mouths among hundreds of Thais and foreigners waiting for hours in warm winter sunlight.
The celebrations blurred the financial risk Cookies and this Southeast Asian country faces in Thailand’s rapidly changing and deceptive cannabis market and political arena.
Legalization could be snuffed out if anti-cannabis opposition politicians win elections for parliament and prime minister, the former expected in May and the premier vote thereafter.
Cookies owns more than 50 retail cannabis venues in a dozen US states, plus franchises in Canada, Israel, the Netherlands and Spain.
“We found some [cannabis] cultivators here in Bangkok – also in places like Chiang Mai and stuff like that – who’ve been doing their thing and are kind of dialed into what they’re doing,” Cookies founder and CEO, Gilbert Milam Jr, said in an interview.
Berner, for one, likes what sees on Thailand’s weed scene. Image: Twitter
Popularly known as Berner, he gestured toward jars of marijuana and said:
“We have a bunch of different cultivators with a small batch. Our goal is to kind of figure out the ones that work best for us, and kind of help to expand them, instead of coming here and building like a massive facility.”
Cookies wants to “work with them on genetics, things like that” to create new hybrids, said Berner, who is also a rapper and cannabis cultivator.
Berner founded Cookies in 2010 after being credited with creating an influential Girl Scout Cookies strain. Forbes magazine featured Berner, a high school dropout, on a 2022 cover as its first cannabis entrepreneur.
“We are not doing anything in terms of importing any kind seeds,” said Cookies Asia general manager Andreas Pergher in an interview.
“That is something that local growers can communicate with [seed] companies. It is now legal to import seeds into Thailand,” Pergher said.
Even if the next government makes cannabis illegal again, Cookies hopes to survive.
“Cookies is a fashion and accessories brand that represents the cannabis community. So whether cannabis is available, or it can be sold, or not, we still have the product line, we still have the following,” Pergher said.
Cookies projects a young, urban, streetwise, stoner, tattooed image.
Cookies sales staff and products project a young, urban, streetwise, stoner, tattooed image. Photo: Richard S. Ehrlich
A Cookies Thailand mural portrays a monkey smoking a fat reefer under an ornate umbrella while riding an elephant. The elephant’s trunk grasps a glass waterpipe as the two animals trek through a marijuana jungle.
Their upstairs retail room offered cannabis, clothing and accessories.
Their hybrids grown in Thailand from imported seeds include Madison Square Gumbo, London Pound Cake, Gunpowder and The Big Apple.
“London Pound Cake is one of the Cookie signature strains that they have, so we were fortunate to find a local grower here in Thailand that grows this,” Pergher said.
“Indoor [grown], all strains, 1 gram, 900 baht” – about $28 – said the Cookies’ menu for its best flowers.
Cannabis legalization’s vague language is loosely interpreted and enforced in the kingdom.
It allows licensed, laissez-faire sales – but not extracts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or hashish – to anyone not under 20 or pregnant. Some shops label every strain “medical cannabis,” hoping to quell concerns over recreational sales.
Police can bust tokers, but only for “pollution” if someone complains about second-hand smoke. So many retailers have opened across Thailand that some streets offer multiple cannabis shops.
An older cannabis store, The Joint, offers “Thailand’s Premium Weed” at similar prices also on Ruam Rudee lane next to a five-star hotel across from Cookies.
Further down is the American Embassy’s back entrance gate between tall, fortified, gray walls.
The saffron-robed Buddhist monk, meanwhile, waved a wet rattan whisk, flicking holy water on Berner, Thai cannabis entrepreneur Julpas “Tom” Kruesopon and other investors and workers.
Thailand’s population is 90% Buddhist. Monks often bless residences, commercial venues, diplomatic events, military weapons, cars and other things.
A Buddhist monk waves a wet rattan whisk, flicking holy water on a traditional Thai animist “yant” design for protection, inside Cookies’ shop. Photo: Richard S Ehrlich
“I wrote the law, I got it legalized,” Julpas told guests and workers at the opening of Cookies Thailand, of which he owns “50%.” “I was the one who suggested they legalize cannabis.”
In 2022, Julpas partnered with a Las Vegas-based cannabis company, Audacious, and created Herbidus Medical Center in Bangkok. It was the first foreign franchise to jointly open a medical marijuana clinic in Thailand.
“Sleep disorder seems to be the number one issue that people are coming to our clinic” to treat, Julpas said in an interview.
If victorious in the elections, the popular opposition Peua Thai (For Thais) party and its allies vow to return cannabis to its illegal “narcotic” status.
That included imprisonment for use, possession, cultivation and sales unless controlled by Health Ministry officials for clinically diagnosed patients or research.
The entrance to Cookies Thailand. An upstairs retail room offers cannabis, clothing and accessories. Photo: Richard S. Ehrlich
“Over one million patients and farmers who use and grow cannabis for medical purposes will be affected,” warned pro-cannabis House member Parnthep Pourpongpan.
Peua Thai is Thailand’s biggest opposition party. Its de facto leader is fugitive billionaire or multimillionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is dodging a Bangkok prison sentence for corruption after being toppled in a bloodless 2006 military coup.
Elected in 2001, Thaksin’s administration also oversaw a bloody “war on drugs.”
“The narcotic suppression campaign of the previous [Thaksin] government, had led to a large number of extra-judicial killings – approximately 2,500 deaths,” wrote the 2006 coup leaders.
Thaksin’s government “constituted serious violation of human rights of a scale unprecedented in a Buddhist society like Thailand,” the junta’s Council for National Security said.
Thaksin’s dismissive officials and cronies blamed the killings on unidentified drug dealers and corrupt cops.
After he was ousted, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2011. She is also a fugitive abroad after a court found her guilty of corruption and a military coup dissolved her coalition in 2014.
The Peua Thai party’s leadership now includes Thaksin’s daughter Paethongtan Shinawatra, who is widely expected to try to bring her father back to Thailand without arrest if Peua Thai wins and forms a government.
They are campaigning against the re-election of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former coup maker and long-time Thaksin nemesis whose coalition government legalized cannabis in 2019.
Today the former coup leader is running for election again — “I respect the country’s democratic process” — but polls indicate Prayut won’t win the popular vote.
Anutin on the Bhum Jai Thai campaign trail. Image: Twitter/Bhum Jai Thai Party
Eyes are on Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul who enthusiastically pushed for legalizing cannabis after meeting Julpas. Anutin’s political base includes farmers now expecting to profit from cannabis in this mostly agricultural nation.
His Bhumjai Thai (Proud to be Thai) party’s bloc of parliament seats stabilizes Prayut’s squabbling coalition.
If Anutin’s Bhumjai Thai wins big in the next parliamentary elections, as some anticipate, he may be a candidate for prime minister, or join whoever makes the best offer to his supporters.
He insists posturing anti-cannabis politicians are actually anti-Anutin, trashing his efforts to create a profitable industry because they seek to defeat him in the polls.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.
Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.