Ganja gap: after marijuana legalisation, Asian-Canadians tread a cultural divide over getting high

  • Marijuana is now legal in Canada
  • But Asian communities are grappling with a generational gulf when it comes to attitudes about the drug
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 8:55am

When Hongkonger Andrea Tam first moved to Canada at the age of 16 in the early 90s, she was struck by the sheer size of the world’s second-largest nation – home to less than 37 million people and roughly 3,600 times the size of Hong Kong.

Tam also found herself in awe of the sense of boundless freedom that accompanied the spaciousness.

“You would go to your high school and just walk outside; there were no school gates like in Hong Kong, no [guard] at the door,” she said. “You could leave anytime.”

It was just outside her Vancouver school, on the pavement known as the “smoke pit”, where Tam got her first taste of Canada’s marijuana culture.

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“Walking by, I knew if someone had smoked it and I learned what it smelled like,” she said. “That was my first knowledge of marijuana.”

Tam, now a 39-year-old advertising executive in Vancouver who occasionally uses marijuana, says these encounters greatly altered her perception of the drug, which became legal in Canada on October 17.

“Hong Kong schools taught me nothing about [it] … I thought marijuana was the same as heroin, the same as cocaine,” she said.

But in her new country, “pot” or “weed” has long been treated as an innocuous recreational pastime, despite being frowned on by many of her parents’ generation of Asian immigrants.

“If you got caught smoking it at school you’d have to see the principal,” she said. “But it wasn’t treated like a bad drug.”

Michelle Lee (not her real name), a 33-year-old special needs teacher who works with primary and secondary school pupils in British Columbia, had her first experience with the drug after ingesting a batch of brownies she did not know contained cannabis during a school camping trip.

“Something wasn’t normal, I went into my tent and hid all night,” she said.

Despite a rocky initiation, marijuana has since become her “vice of choice”.

“For me personally, I’m allergic to alcohol. Drinking is horrible, within a matter of minutes my heart would race and I’d get a headache, hives and all that. Whereas smoking marijuana was just fine, it was an easy choice to make.”

Other Asian-Canadians share similarly rosy views of the drug.

“Of my Asian-Canadian friend circle, probably everyone has tried it,” said Robert Wu (not his real name), a 26-year-old software engineer who sees so much promise in the industry that he invests in “weed stocks”.

“Marijuana is actually really nice, much better than drinking – no side effects, you sleep like a baby and it makes food taste good.”

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The Canadian government seems to agree. Under the federal Cannabis Act championed by Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada became the second country in the world to legalise the recreational usage and purchase of cannabis and related products. The newly legalised industry stands to generate up to C$6.5 billion (US$5 billion) in sales by 2020, according to Statistics Canada. In the neighbouring United States, where the drug can be legally consumed in nine states and used for medical purposes in 31, the industry grew to US$8.7 billion last year. Total North American spending on legal cannabis is expected to reach US$47.3 billion by 2027.

Still, the mind-altering drug remains a symbol of the cultural divide between older generations of Asian-Canadian immigrants and their children.

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Lee, now a mother, says she could never disclose her use of marijuana to her mother, who emigrated to Canada from Hong Kong over 30 years ago.

“A lot of times when she does try to talk to me [about issues], it comes out as a lecture versus having a conversation,” she said. “To save myself the hassle, I definitely keep a lot of things from her so I don’t have to deal with it ... I think it’s partly personality but also most Asian parents from her generation are like that.”

“There is my life, and then my life with my parents – those are two separate things,” said Andrea Tam. “For some reason even though I’m almost turning 40, I still seek their approval.”

Tam said she never discussed marijuana with her parents until after it was legalised: “Because ... you don’t want to rock the boat.”

“I don’t think my parents know to this day,” said Justin (not his real name) a 39-year-old frequent marijuana smoker whose family emigrated from Malaysia, which has recently been loosening its stance on drug offences and is moving towards abolishing the death penalty. “They caught me with a pipe when I was a teenager … they were very stern and I remember arguing that smoking cigarettes was worse,” he said, adding that the incident was eventually forgotten.

In societies where they require mass productivity … I can see how marijuana wouldn’t be good
Robert Wu 

Others say it is East Asia’s memories of past tragedies that make the drug so sensitive. Some Asian-Canadian immigrants grew up hearing stories about the opium wars, waged by the British from 1839 to 1842 after the Qing dynasty cracked down on its trade of the drug, which is estimated to have created up to 12 million Chinese opium addicts at the time.

“When I hear about marijuana legalisation, I think of the opium war,” said Doris Siu, a Chinese-Canadian in her late 40s. “I know there’s a difference, but this war made society unproductive and people lost everything and China went into a huge economic decline.”

Robert Wu says his parents will never understand liberal attitudes about the drug.

“Their experience stems from the opium crisis in China,” he said. “In societies where they require mass productivity such as China, Korea and Japan, I can see how marijuana wouldn’t be good,” he said.

While obscuring marijuana use from their family is a priority for many second-generation Asian-Canadians, a visit to the countries of their parents can come with even bigger risks.

Marijuana use is strictly punished in Asia. South Korea has warned its citizens not to consume the drug while abroad, with anyone returning with traces of the substance in their system at risk of up to five years in jail. Japan, where an estimated 1.3 million people have tried the drug, issued similar warnings earlier this month.

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Now that marijuana is legal in Canada maybe it will be easier to receive medicinal help. #marijuana #marijuanacanada

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In Hong Kong, where drug trafficking can be punished with life imprisonment, 149kg worth of cannabis was seized in the first six months of 2018. In the same week that marijuana became legal in Canada, HK$7.5 million (US$950,000) worth of cannabis buds and oils were seized from a Tin Shui Wai flat. In mainland China, internet users have been airing their concerns about accidentally consuming marijuana-laced products while living or travelling in Canada, which had 682,000 Chinese visitors last year.

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“If you legalise cannabis in Canada, you’ll get rid of Chinese visitors forever,” posted one WeChat user.

“I noticed how conservative Asia in fact is, over the past week since marijuana was legalised in Canada,” said Peter Wang (not his real name), 30, who lived in Canada for seven years before returning to his native Beijing. “But had I not been living in Vancouver, I would not scientifically or rationally understand that marijuana is not harmful.”

For Andrea Tam, Canada’s decision to legalise the drug embodies the country’s open-mindedness and advanced civil society.

“Before it was legal, lots of people smoked pot, and those who smoked will continue smoking, law or no law,” she said. “But I think for others, legalisation actually means something really good. We still live in a country where citizens trust the government. If they deem it safe and legal, we think it’s safe and legal. And in today’s world, this is incredibly rare.”