Where Do Asian Countries Stand on Cannabis Legalization

Photo Credit: Live Science

Cannabis is not as revered in the Eastern Hemisphere as it is in the West. Even though evidence shows this part of the world used cannabis in medicinal practices for centuries, why is there such a disapproving stance on the plant in modern times?

Many Asian countries are now starting to soften their laws on cannabis consumption and production, but this still hasn’t done much for the continued stigma that prevails within their communities. These negative perceptions are also an explanation as to why Asian representation in the cannabis industry is so minimal here in the United States.

What’s Causing the Lack of Asian Representation and Business Owners in the Cannabis Industry?

The total percentage of Asian cannabis business owners and founders is lower than any other minority group. According to a report by MJBizDaily back in 2017, it only comes out to about 2.2 percent. This disparity in ownership and representation makes networking harder for Asian American business owners like Jimmy Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who works in Colorado’s cannabis industry.

Nguyen describes in an article from Westword, an independent news website in Denver, how he is one in a handful of Asian Americans who owns a cannabis business in Colorado. After working in Colorado’s cannabis industry for six years, he’s only met two other Asian business owners. However, Nguyen paints a vastly different picture when discussing his experience out in California. 

“There’s just a larger Asian population in general and a longer history of cannabis use in California,” Nguyen stated. “There’s a distinction between ownership and representation in general for Asian-Americans in cannabis, but I think both are quite low here.”

The population demographic in Denver contributes to the lack of diversity. Colorado’s 2019 Census Bureau data shows nearly 80 percent of people identify as white or primarily white, and only 4.4 percent classified as Asian. A 2020 survey conducted by the City of Denver reported 0 percent of locally licensed cannabis dispensaries owners identified as Asian. However, at least 25 percent chose not to disclose their race, and the survey also didn’t account for ancillary businesses like Nguyen’s.

But a small number of Asian American residents isn’t the only cause for such minimal representation. It also comes down to culture, social norms, and years of generational animosity towards anything having to deal with cannabis. 

Cannabis Views and Laws in Asian Countries

Anti-cannabis sentiments have been rooted within Asian communities for decades. Major officials in most Asian countries have been adamant about keeping their stringent cannabis laws intact. 

One entrepreneur who speaks on this in the same Westword article is Melanie Rodgers. She is a Philippine-American in Denver who operates a marketing agency and social advocacy group for criminal justice towards medical marijuana and psilocybin. Rodgers reveals how drug use and possession of marijuana in the Philippines can result in the death penalty. She also points out that, along with the community’s heavy Catholic influence, the stigma towards cannabis use comes from the fact that many Filipinos work in the nursing field. 

“Cannabis not getting recognition from the FDA and American Nurses Association, that still leaves a stigma for it to not be considered true medicine,” according to Rodgers.

Nguyen remarked that he and his mother didn’t speak for nearly a year after telling her he was working in the cannabis industry. He realized later that her fear of retaliation and years of misinformation from propaganda was responsible for her harsh viewpoints around cannabis. “When I told her, it was fascinating because everything she was saying to me was just decades and decades of propaganda from the War on Drugs — not just where we came from, but here, as well.”

Cannabis laws in other Asian countries don’t get much better either. Here’s where the Eastern Hemisphere stands so far on their views and acceptance:

  • Vietnam– Cannabis is completely illegal, and the legal repercussions for possession or trafficking can range from prison time as well as the death penalty. However, many locals, tourists, and online forums say the police don’t enforce the law as much as we’d think, especially for foreigners. The main reason being they want the country to be a hot spot destination for tourists. While they don’t recommend just smoking in the middle of the street, you can easily smell the marijuana in the air while walking around major cities. It’s also not unheard of for people to bribe the cops if caught with cannabis.
  • Japan– Selling, importing, growing, or being arrested for cannabis in Japan could result in a seven to ten-year prison sentence. The Foreign Ministry in Japan even went as far as to urge its own citizens, visiting or living in New York, to stay away from marijuana after recreational use was fully legalized. They gave the same warning in 2018 after Canada lifted the ban on recreational cannabis. CBD products have been permitted in the country since 2016, but stigma, propaganda, and current laws still create a lack of awareness of the therapeutic effects of CBD.
  • South Korea– In 2018, South Korea became the first East Asian country to legalize medical marijuana, but the decision came with massive regulations. The Ministry of Food and Drug only allows three different cannabis-based products; Epidiolex, Marinol, and Sativex. The current qualifying conditions include epilepsy, symptoms of HIV/AIDS, and cancer-related treatments. Any other form of cannabis use is strictly illegal. Those who are caught could face a five-year prison sentence and pay up to $40,000 (USD) in fines. The South Korean government has threatened that they will still arrest citizens who use cannabis abroad where it is fully legal.

Photo Credit: Vernon Clements/ House of Weird Perfection

  • China– Even though China grows nearly half of the world’s exported hemp, cannabis is not viewed positively by the government and remains completely illegal. The country produces CBD products, but only to be shipped overseas. The Chinese government recently proposed legislation that would ban any cannabis compounds from being used in cosmetics, including CBD. Cannabis has been valued as medicine throughout Chinese history. Its usage has been referenced in numerous medical texts dating back almost 2000 years. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, China has 309 of the 606 patents for cultivating medical cannabis, even though they have no formal medical marijuana program. Some experts believe the tides will eventually change so cannabis can be legalized for medical purposes. Others disagree and argue that a lack of research and overarching negative stigma makes it a bigger hurdle than anticipated.
  • Thailand– Thailand is by far the most progressive when it comes to its views on the value of cannabis. It’s the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medical marijuana, but you can be arrested and sentenced for recreational use. However, the government is slowly easing restrictions so the public can gain better access to the plant. Thailand now allows residents to grow up to six plants in their homes as a way to supplement income. Any crop can be supplied to hospitals and state facilities for medicine or be used to make for-sale food and cosmetics. While whole flower and seeds are illegal for any kind of recreational consumption, the rest of the plant has been decriminalized.

This cultural echo chamber is a huge contributor to why Asians are underrepresented within the industry. Thankfully, there are multiple organizations run by Asian Americans dedicated to changing their community’s perceptions of cannabis by educating others and starting a dialogue. The Asian Americans for Cannabis Education is an incredible resource that features Asian leaders making waves and creating their own space in the cannabis industry.

Prominent Asian Leaders to Watch Out for in the Cannabis Industry

While the Western world’s views on cannabis are significantly more open than in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Asian community holds many forward-thinking individuals already working hard at changing those perceptions. 

Below are just a small number of Asian owners and founders in the cannabis industry who are leading the path for the next generation. By supporting them and their businesses, we’re supporting the creation of a well-educated and passionate sector of Asian cannabis entrepreneurs!

  • Ophelia Chong– Founder of Stock Pot Images and Asian Americans for Cannabis Education
  • Steven Phan– Co-Founder of Come Back Daily, New York’s largest and most trusted CBD experiential retail hub
  • Jayson Won– Head of Creative at Puffco
  • Dae Lim– Creative Director and Principal of Sundae School, a boutique smoke wear shop in New York City
  • Jenn Wong– VP of Marketing for Select/Curaleaf
  • Priyanka Yoshikawa– Founder of Mukoomi, a CBD-infused skincare line based in Japan
  • Kota Shimomura– Owner of CBD Coffee in Tokyo

“I’m Alyna, a writer from Florida and strong advocate for the mental health community. Through my writing and advocacy, I hope to add an educating voice that helps the with mood disorders learn to navigate life in a calm and self-fulfilling way. I consume Cannabis as a means to understand and connect with the world.

Written By: Alyna Paparazzi 

Edited by: Veronica Castillo

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