Why Hong Kong is no gateway to China when it comes to legalising marijuana

  • Yonden Lhatoo looks at how the city is unmoved by the global trend of increasingly liberal attitudes towards cannabis and shifting perceptions in the region regarding its use, especially for medicinal purposes
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 10:12pm

I doubt most Hongkongers even got a whiff of it, but the city hosted its first international Cannabis Investor Symposium this week.

Local authorities turned up their noses at an invitation to attend and the organisers had to put a “purely informational” spin on it, cautioning participants against openly appreciative activity such as pot smoking to avoid running foul of Hong Kong’s puritanical laws against marijuana.

Cannabis is classified as a dangerous drug here and peddling it can land you in jail for life on trafficking charges. Even a little spliff in your possession or teeny toke carries the risk of seven years behind bars and a fine of HK$1 million (US$127,700).

Nevertheless, representatives of some of the world’s leading cannabis companies attending the event were out to persuade potential investors to join an exploding industry that is forecast to grow into a US$57 billion cash cow over the next decade. They called for medicinal use of marijuana to be legalised and floated the idea of taking out IPOs for cannabis companies.

“Cannabis is not a drug. It’s a great medicine and is natural. We have really started to revolutionise how we think about cannabis,” organiser Saul Kaye said. “That’s why we chose Hong Kong to be at the edge of where it is happening. And it is happening here.”

Happening? Only in the sense that more people seem to be smoking the stuff casually, emboldened by increasingly liberal attitudes towards cannabis worldwide. What’s also happening is that police are intensifying their corresponding crackdown on cannabis to the extent that seizures have dropped from 583kg in the first half of 2017 to 149kg in the same period this year. It doesn’t mean they’re winning the “war” here – they’re just driving growers and suppliers deeper underground.

Thailand sets sights on becoming first Asian country to legalise medical marijuana

Local authorities and health professionals reacting to the symposium have been quick to snuff out the idea of cannabis as a legitimate investment, making it clear the city is no market for marijuana, even for medicinal use. Never mind that countries as conservative as Malaysia and Thailand – where drug offences are punishable by death – are now actively exploring the pharmaceutical potential.

Industry players are obviously eyeing a much bigger market as they seek to open Hong Kong’s firmly closed gateway to the rest of China, which has quietly become a global superpower, if you will, in cannabis cultivation and research. China now holds more than half of the world’s 600-plus patents related to the plant, which it has grown and used for centuries to develop hemp products.

China warns its citizens against marijuana after Canada legalises it

Keep in mind that all this is not about getting high. As much as it reaps the profits of mass production and invests in the medicinal potential of cannabis – which is being used globally to treat or alleviate symptoms of ailments ranging from epilepsy to cancer – China officially remains rooted in the firm belief that marijuana is an evil drug.

Just this week, it warned Chinese citizens abroad, especially students, that Canada’s decision to legalise the recreational use of cannabis was not a licence to bring out their bongs and get baked.

Hong Kong obviously takes its cue from the mainland when it comes to such matters, and the Confucian-style conservatism in this city’s DNA will ensure some perceptions never change, including those about cannabis.

“There is clearly a growing demand for the drug and a lot of money to be made from it,” a top High Court judge recommended way back in 1994. “So if someone is going to supply it, why should it be criminals? Why not have the government supply it? That way its use could be much more easily controlled, its use restricted and its users educated and separated from criminal elements.”

Not gonna happen, your honour.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post