Opinion: I’m never smoking pot in Southeast Asia

“Highland: Thailand’s Marijuana Awakening” highlights the shifting attitudes toward pot in Thailand, but shows a scarier drug culture in other Southeast Asian countries.


Illustration by Ivan Benavides

Thomas Chiles, Features Editor

If you’re an American college student, chances are that you or someone you know smokes weed.

And for many young adults in the United States, it feels like smoking pot has almost become a norm.

Since 1970, the plant has been federally labeled as a Schedule I drug — meaning the U.S. doesn’t recognize it as having a medical use and that it has a “high potential for abuse.” Despite this, the public’s opinion of it has shifted in the last 50 years.

So far, eight states have legalized recreational use, while 23 allow some form of medical use. Recent polls show that more than half of all Americans have smoked pot and over 83 percent are in support of medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, pot’s usage and approval in other parts of the world isn’t nearly as high. (No pun intended.) A Netflix documentary released May 19 called “Highland: Thailand’s Marijuana Awakening” will open your eyes to how progressive our country’s perception of marijuana has become.

The three-episode series, produced by Asian news outlet Coconuts TV, shows that the war on drugs is still very much in swing in Southeast Asian countries. However, in some places like Thailand, there is beginning to be a slow shift toward approval.

More than a silly pun

The title “Highland” was not created for the title of this film, but rather invented by Thailand’s first ever informational marijuana news magazine.

Created by a man named Guide Surnak who lost most of his family in Thailand to cancer, the Thai citizen was determined to make a difference in his country. For the past decade, cancer has been the top killer in Thailand, so Surnak went to San Francisco and learned about medicinal marijuana and the positive effects it can have on cancer patients.

Back in Thailand, Surnak hosted a public workshop that taught the effects of marijuana as well as the benefits of decriminalization. His actions spurred the Thai media to cover the drug and opened a dialogue that was once considered taboo.

Now, Thailand is seeing its own “marijuana awakening.” Because of efforts like Surnak’s, many Thai officials are beginning to see the benefits of the plant and are considering legalization or at least decriminalization.

Who has the stricter drug laws?

Apart from Thailand, the documentary series examines stricter drug laws in other Southeast Asian countries, as well as the U.S.

America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with over 2.2 million people either in jail or prison. More than half of those locked up in federal prisons are in for drug charges.

Right now in Thailand, a simple possession of marijuana could land you in prison for multiple years, not to mention heavy fines and property seizure by the government. Compared to that, a ticket and a misdemeanor charge for pot possession in the U.S. is a slap on the wrist.

Although the Philippines do not have the death penalty, President Rodrigo Duterte has led a war against drugs that has left over 6,000 users and dealers dead on the street. Indonesia does have a death penalty, and has sentenced over 18 drug traffickers to death by firing squad in the last two years.

Countries including Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are also known to sentence drug traffickers and smugglers to death.

Interesting, informational and stoned

With three episodes each running at just 20 minutes, the documentary features interviews with Surnak, local Thai citizens and people from small villages.

The first episode examines the overall drug culture of Thailand and neighboring countries. The second episode details the region’s advancements in the medicinal marijuana field. The final episode highlights recreational use of pot in Southeast Asia.

I do have one critique for the host of the series, Sebastian Perry. While he presents easily understandable information, travels to multiple countries and conducts some interesting interviews, he seems to slur his speech during voiceover work, leaving the audience wondering if he’s stoned.

However, this is still definitely a quick documentary worth checking out. We know a lot about the blossoming pot culture here in America, but “Highland” puts you on the other side of the planet, a place that most Americans know very little about.

If you’re a college student at home and you just smoked or are curious about other countries’ drug policy, start streaming “Highland” and I promise you’ll learn something about pot you didn’t expect.

Grade: B+

Thomas Chiles is the features editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @thomas_iv.