One of Thailand's major fast food chains has been promoting its “Crazy Happy Pizza” this month, an under-the-radar product topped with a cannabis leaf. It's legal but won't get you high.
Veterans of the backpacker trail, familiar with the legendary pizza parlours of neighbouring Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh that offer powerful marijuana as an optional condiment, might feel downright cheated.
“Of course, they cannot get high,” Panusak Suensatboon, general manager of The Pizza Company, said in an interview this week.
“It's just a marketing campaign. and you can taste the cannabis and then if you have enough, you maybe get a bit sleepy.”
The Crazy Happy Pizza is a mashup of toppings evoking the flavours of Thailand's famous Tom Yum Gai soup along with a deep-fried cannabis leaf on top.
Cannabis is also infused into the cheese crust and there's chopped cannabis in the dipping sauce. A 9-inch pie costs 499 baht (about USD 15). Customers preferring a do-it-yourself variety can choose their own toppings, with a 100 baht (USD 3) surcharge for two or three cannabis leaves.
The cannabis plant has been used for two major purposes: as hemp for making rope and clothing, and as an intoxicating drug, known as pot, ganja and dagga.
In recent years, a kind of middle-ground product has emerged: cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical found in cannabis that can be processed into what is touted as a cure-all medicine. CBD can be separated out from tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the chemical in cannabis that produces marijuana's high.
CBD has legitimized products made with cannabis, drawing on the mystique of marijuana without flouting the law or raising major health questions. It's become a boom industry, especially in the United States.
Recreational marijuana is still illegal in Thailand, and can earn you a fine and time in jail, even though drug laws have been liberalized in the past few years. Cannabis is regulated for medicinal use, and individuals are allowed to grow a small number of plants for their own consumption.
Thailand last December became the first country in Southeast Asia to remove specific parts and extracts of cannabis from its controlled narcotics list, and in February this year allowed them to be used in foods and beverages.
The amount of THC in the CBD product must not exceed 0.2 per cent of its total weight, virtually eliminating the possibility of getting high.
Cannabis products even before being decriminalized had become a cottage industry in Thailand, but their adoption by The Pizza Company -- operated by Minor Food Group, a subsidiary of the Stock Exchange of Thailand-listed Minor International -- boosts them into the commercial big-time.
Crazy Happy Pizza has been available at all of The Pizza Company's branches in Thailand, but sales have been lackluster, according to Panusak. It has faced several handicaps -- it cannot legally be advertised or sold to anyone under the age of 12. He estimates that when the company ends its sales promotion on Tuesday, it will have to throw away about a fifth of the cannabis leaves it acquired.
“I don't think the market is ready for cannabis products yet. We knew this since the beginning," said Panusak.
“We only wanted to be the first mover to launch something new and innovative in the market.” He cited durian pizza, incorporating the exotic and pricey tropical Asian fruit known for its pungent smell, as another example of his company's innovations.
“We try to get some new ingredients, anything that is in trend, and we use it and we want people to talk about it,” he said.
Associate professor Wilert Puriwat, dean of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn Business School, believes that using cannabis for marketing can be effective in an initial stage, but business owners need strategies to make it work in the long run.
“In general, people who try it will not expect to get high,” he said.
“They just want to keep themselves trendy and take photos to post on their social media to show they have tried something that was once illegal."
He said cannabis has an emotional value that builds on a product's core value. “When people walk into your restaurant, they should come for your food and service, not for cannabis.”