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Why Canada's cannabis legalization worries China

Why Canada's cannabis legalization worries China

China has expressed concerns about Canadian cannabis entering the country, yet despite Beijing’s staunch anti-drug stance, the status of cannabis in China remains complicated.

Just the Basics

  • Chinese authorities have seen a substantial increase in the amount of cannabis smuggled into Hong Kong from Canada since Ottawa legalized cannabis in October 2018.

  • Traumatic memories of the connection between drugs and Western colonialism in China has both Beijing and Chinese citizens worried about cannabis

  • China has a complicated relationship with cannabis, as a patchwork of regulations sees draconian prohibition exist alongside a world-leading industrial hemp sector

Canada’s 2018 legalization of marijuana was met with international press coverage (and more than a few longing glances) praising Ottawa’s progressive stance on drugs. Naturally, there were also those who disagreed with this move, notably the Conservative Party, which had long touted its tough-on-drugs position. In a strange twist of fate, Conservative anti-legalization politicians found a sympathetic ear in Chinese state media, as Beijing looked on in disbelief at Canada’s move towards legalization. China’s drug laws make legalization’s staunchest Canadian opponents look permissive in comparison: Chinese media outlets were quick to denounce legalization as a fool’s errand which Beijing would not be imitating anytime soon.

In a strange convergence, some Conservative politicians and Chinese media both referenced Chinese history in their arguments. For the latter this makes sense, as the influence of opium on 19th century Chinese society was devastating, helping set in motion China’s fall and subjection by the West and Japan. The collective memory of the Opium Wars and the drug’s legacy in general has made many Chinese highly adverse to narcotics of all kinds. As China Daily explains, “for many Chinese, marijuana is a drug and therefore synonymous with opium, a far more potent substance that the British forced upon the Chinese during the Opium War. The war [is] widely regarded by Chinese as the start of their country’s ‘Century of Humiliation.”

China’s experience with opium colours its reaction to marijuana, an understandable if simplistic reaction as tarring marijuana with the legacy of opium helps the Chinese government foster its strict anti-cannabis stance. Compare this to comments made by Alberta Conservative MLA Ron Orr in November 2017, who worried that legalizing cannabis would help lead Canada down the path to communist revolution. Citing that, like cannabis, opium is also ‘just a plant’, Orr seeks to draw parallels between China and Canada, “[China’s] whole society was so broken down and debilitated by [opium] that it contributed to the Chinese Cultural Revolution under the Communists, the execution of thousands of people, dealers were executed [...] I for one, am not really willing to go down this road. The human tragedy of what’s going to happen with this has yet to be revealed.”

Now one can easily dismiss Orr’s statements as rambling or out of touch, but his efforts to draw parallels between cannabis legalization and China’s tumultuous recent history is not a mere fluke. Time and again, connections to China seem to appear, a trend which makes for interesting reading. For instance, there is a connection to China behind why Canada prohibited cannabis in the first place. When Canada made marijuana illegal in 1923, few Canadians would have been familiar with the drug, let alone would have tried it. Back then, the main drug scare centred on opium, with the anti-opium campaign mirroring the efforts to ban Chinese immigration to Canada, with activists using the spectre of opium to bolster their cause.

During this time, fear mongers peddled tales that Chinese immigration would lead to the corruption of the youth and the rise of mixed-race children due to drug addled white women succumbing to the advances of Chinese men. Chief among these pundits was women’s rights activist Emily Murphy - long a historical bugbear of cannabis advocates - whose articles in Maclean's and book The Black Candle demonized cannabis as a gateway drug.

Due to the scaremongering efforts of Murphy and others, marijuana was conflated with opium as yet another nefarious oriental substance, resulting in cannabis being included in the schedule of prohibited substances, despite a negligible presence in Canada - the first cannabis seizure by Canadian police only occurred in 1937. It is most telling that both the prohibition of marijuana as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act - effectively barring Chinese immigration - were both passed in 1923.

Coming back full circle, just as Orr invokes China to warn against the creeping spectre of drug-fuelled communist dystopia, following legalization a viral article made the rounds on WeChat, titled “You can never imagine how Canada’s weed legalization will ruin millions of Chinese people’s lives!” Just as Murphy linked drug consumption in Canada to nefarious foreign influences, so too does the WeChat article, albeit with the causal relationship moving in the opposite direction.

“ [...] for East Asian groups, such as Chinese-Canadians, there is also a historic, almost moral-nationalist sentiment against any substance perceived as Western and illegal.”
— Chuck Chiang, Richmond News

The WeChat article mirrors Orr’s hyperbole, warning Chinese visitors to Canada that they will be beset by a vast array of products secretly infused with THC, thus making them unwitting participants in the drug trade. In a humorously stereotypical tirade, the article claims that “Canadians’ minds are completely twisted. Who on earth adds marijuana into maple syrup?! [...] Okay when you return home with these marijuana snacks, sorry stone cold handcuffs are waiting for you! [sic]” The article draws power from the fact that Chinese citizens accidentally bringing THC-laden goodies into China is a plausible scenario, one which could see Chinese visitors to Canada run afoul of China’s strict drug laws (Article 357 of China’s criminal law code places cannabis on the same level as cocaine and heroin), even potentially resulting in the death penalty.

Cannabis seizures soar in Hong Kong

Setting aside such rampant exaggeration, there are indeed pot-related connections between Canada and China, as the Chinese government has expressed concern about the rising amount of cannabis smuggled into the country, much of which stemming from cities like Toronto and Vancouver. Hong Kong has become a main entry point for illegal cannabis imports into China, with local police seizing 137 kilograms of weed during the first quarter of 2019. This amount almost matches the entire haul for 2018, with Hong Kong authorities reporting a 500 percent increase in confiscations compared to 2018. Moreover, authorities in Hong Kong say there is an “obvious trend” of cannabis entering the country from Canada. For instance, a man coming from Vancouver was arrested on February 18th after police found 30 kilograms of cannabis buds in his luggage.

Alongside a steep increase in cannabis smuggling, Hong Kong authorities are concerned that Canada’s legalization will make more Chinese people curious about the drug, with legalization making cannabis appear less serious than other substances, in turn leading to increased demand and headaches for Chinese law enforcement.

It should be noted that Hong Kong police maintain that there is no indication that these illegal imports are being acquired from Canadian retail outlets, but rather from the black market. This throws a wrench into claims that legalization will help to squash criminal activity, and while a case for this can still be made domestically, the explosion of investment and production capacity in Canadian cannabis is also creating more opportunities for disreputable dealings. China even raised the issue of illegal marijuana imports with the Canadian government during discussions on how to stem the flow of fentanyl made in China entering Canada.

In response to China’s concerns, Ottawa has made promises to crack down on cannabis smuggling; however, “the clandestine nature of illegal cannabis exportation from Canada to any country, including China, makes it difficult to estimate exactly how often it occurs,” explains Public Safety Canada spokesperson Andrew Gowing. That being said, Statistics Canada reported back in 2017 that around twenty percent of the country’s total pot production - valued at around $1.2 billion was being sold illegally beyond the country’s borders.

Smuggling weed into Hong Kong is a dangerous game, with perpetrators potentially facing life imprisonment and a HK$5 million dollar ($858,000) fine. The new extradition agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China now means that smugglers could also be sent to the mainland to serve their sentences or face the death penalty. Despite the risks, Hong Kong’s strict prohibition means that one gram retails for $48, a price mark that encourages smugglers to take risks and flaunt China’s harsh laws.

Chinese-Canadians share Beijing’s wariness of cannabis

When Canada legalized cannabis in October, 2018 China joined Japan and South Korea in warning their citizens against using cannabis during their time in Canada, lest they face repercussions when they return home. Of particular concern for China is the potential for Chinese international students to be exposed to cannabis during their time in Canada. Stopping university students from experimenting with pot is an effort in futility, but China’s Toronto consulate issued an announcement nonetheless stating that, “the consulate would like to remind the Chinese citizens in the consular district, especially international students, in order to protect your own physical and mental health please avoid contact [with] or using marijuana.”

Such is the aversion to marijuana in Chinese culture that some observers have raised concerns about the potential economic impact of legalization. “In China, legalization of marijuana is most definitely not okay socially,” explains Tom Yuan president of the Canada Asia Business Network, “Chinese parents don’t want to send their children here to smoke pot.” While there has not been a decrease in the numbers of Chinese students coming to Canada, Yuan’s point remains a poignant one; while wider Canadian society largely lauded legalization, the issue has been deeply divisive within the Chinese-Canadian community.

A breakdown of Chinese-Canadian communities in Canada shows that they largely mirror attitudes found in Hong Kong and mainland China with regards to cannabis. Whereas there is evidence of a generational divide, with younger Chinese-Canadians harbouring more favourable views of cannabis than older cohorts, levels of cannabis acceptance remains lower than among other groups. Writing in Richmond News, Chuck Chiang notes that “for East Asian groups, such as Chinese-Canadians, there is also a historic, almost moral-nationalist sentiment against any substance perceived as Western and illegal.”

Such sentiments have motivated opposition to cannabis stores in various Chinese-Canadian communities across the country. In Calgary, Chinatown residents mobilized against plans to open a medical marijuana shop, citing the proximity to schools and the need to respect Chinatown’s cultural heritage. Similarly, the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education (NICHE) had to rethink its promotional efforts in Richmond, BC after stronger than expected resistance from the local community.

China is home to the world’s largest cannabis industry

The great irony is that cannabis has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia; the substance has been in China far longer than in Canada. Just as China criticizes Canada for cannabis legalization, China is also the world’s largest producer of cannabis, accounting for fifty percent of global production. Hemp accounts for the vast majority of cannabis production in China, with sales exceeding $1 billion. As of 2017 Chinese companies own 309 of the 606 global patents relating to cannabis. According to the New Zealand Herald, “there are no official figures for the amount of the plant China produces each year, but plantations are flourishing - both for commercial and illicit drug use. This growth was in part made possible by government-funded scientists assigned to study the plant’s military uses, including medicine and uniform fabric.”

Despite prohibitions on the drug, China is home to the largest industrial hemp sector in the world

At the same time, Chinese regulators have also cracked down on speculators pushing up stock prices of cannabis industry firms, as cannabis-related stocks have been some of hottest over the past twelve months. Specifically, Chinese authorities have been pressuring companies to disclose any cannabis related dealings as the government seeks to tighten approval for hemp-related licenses. China’s complicated and conflicted relationship with cannabis makes for a confusing market as the government’s patchwork application of cannabis prohibitions and permissions creates strange scenarios.

At a time when the Chinese government is cracking down on cannabis speculation and complaining about weed entering the country from Canada, China has also given Canadian cannabis firms the go ahead to begin operations in the country. Vancouver-based Yield Growth Corp., a company selling hemp seed and hemp-root oil health and beauty products is set to launch unmanned, AI and facial recognition software driven pop-up kiosks in three luxury malls in Hong Kong. Yield Growth is partnering with Hong Kong’s Popsquare to begin operations in June. While hemp seed based products are legal in mainland China and Hong Kong, the status of hemp oil is more complicated, as only the latter jurisdiction has approved their use, just another example of the complex web of regulations facing Canadian firms in China. “The only difficulty we may find is when we talk to major retailers in Hong Kong, just because our ingredients are so new that people want to make sure it’s legal,” notes Yield CEO Penny Green.

Another Canadian firm heading to China is Vernon, B.C based True Leaf Medicine International, which has focused on hemp healthcare products for pets as a means to familiarize Chinese consumers with hemp. The more familiar and comfortable Chinese consumers become with hemp products, the easier it is for Canadian companies to increase their presence in the country. Touching on the difficulties of penetrating the Chinese market, True Leaf executive vice-president, Tenzin Kashgar states that “there is a taboo, and the way to combat that is to be a trusted, credible source of education. We’d like to say we are not in the business of selling, but in the business of educating. This is a brand new product category, no different from Uber or Airbnb. People were hesitant to use these products at first, so there’s lots of educating required, and that’s where we spend the majority of our time.”

The Bottom Line

The long shadow of opium peddled by Western imperialists continues to cast a long shadow over China, directly shaping attitudes to narcotics in both the country and among the Chinese diaspora in Canada. China’s humiliation in the Opium Wars and the ensuing societal damage has resulted in strong anti-drug attitudes among Chinese, a historical legacy tarring the reputation of all narcotic substances, including cannabis, a substance increasingly considered to have garnered an unfair reputation. Following Canada’s legalization of marijuana in October 2018, authorities in Hong Kong noticed a stark increase in illegal cannabis imports from places such as Vancouver and Toronto. Chinese concerns about cannabis infiltration from abroad have led Beijing to raise the issue with Ottawa, seeking to clamp down on the trend.

At the same time that China is executing drug smugglers, the country is also home to the world’s largest hemp industry, an uneasy fact that sees Beijing cracking down on cannabis speculators while simultaneously allowing companies to sell a variety of (albeit non-psychotropic) hemp products. Legal differences between Hong Kong and mainland China only further complicate matters. Blaming Canadian legalization may be a convenient scapegoat for opponents of cannabis consumption in China, but ultimately a lack of consistency and transparency in cannabis legislation remains a key problem. The lack of clear data concerning hemp production in China only makes it harder to determine whether Chinese hemp producers are involved in black market deals. As Tim Hill writes for VICE, “behind a tight veil of secrecy, there is a small, but flourishing circle of mainlanders who grow, trade, smoke and eat weed.”

China is fully in its rights to restrict access to substances it considers dangerous, yet increasing scientific evidence demonstrating cannabis’ (relatively) benign effects as well as the failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ in stemming cannabis consumption both point to Beijing ultimately fighting a losing battle. Cannabis may still be taboo for many Chinese, but increasing interaction with countries like Canada which have adopted a different approach is leading more Chinese to question long standing assumptions.

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