It is not easy to generalize about any culture especially not one as ancient and diverse as China. Factor in a population of some 1.4 billion persons, 52 ethnicities, and 302 actively spoken languages and you are likely to encounter no small differences of opinion let alone culture.
For the purposes of this article let us assume that people are people and so rather than pointing fingers at different ethnic groups let us proceed from the standpoint of the individual person since, in the end, we all make our own decisions. Let us also remember that cannabis in all forms has been part of Chinese culture as long as there has been Chinese culture. Attitudes and laws may change but cannabis remains.
Cannabis Culture In China: A broader point of view
As a Canadian physician managing all forms of chronic pain (and all that goes with it like anxiety, fear, depression, poor sleep, social withdrawal, mobility loss, etc.) and finding little benefit in the approved and available pain management tool chest the subject of marijuana arose rather frequently.
Over the years I encountered all manner of attitudes regarding medical cannabis usage from heaven-sent-savior to flowering-death-sentence. Most people I found, however, regarded cannabis with mild amusement or indifference (not so with heroin or cocaine!).
One patient group did stand out though and these were middle-aged persons of Chinese descent to whom the subject of medical cannabis for chronic pain could not be broached such was the depth of the cultural stigma. This attitude is not the result of actual personal or even broader negative cultural experience, it is the result of an effective government anti-cannabis education campaign.
Do drug substances no matter how well-intentioned have the potential to do great harm? Yes. When harm is being done is it the role of the government to take action? Yes.
I remember visiting my grandfather in the hospital once only to find him having a lively discussion with his surgeon about the pros and cons of their respective cigarette brands. Eventually, they agreed to swap and the surgeon kindly lit gramps up.
Fortunately, there was a nurse available to change his ashtray. No, I’m not making this up! The initial introduction of cigarettes many decades ago, by the way, was not hailed as a great invention.
Why not? Because unadulterated tobacco goes out, rendering the day’s cigarettes expensive and inconvenient and no one bothered with them.
Solution? Add nitrates to tobacco which raises the tip temperature to 600 degrees rendering the cigarette self-igniting. Mix in modern mass-production methods and some advertising and voila, everyone smokes cigarettes.
What’s wrong with that you ask? The combination of high temperature, tobacco, and nitrate causes the formation of carcinogens giving rise to epidemic lung cancer. Enter, appropriately, the government and anti-smoking campaigns. Now try to light up in a hospital and just see what happens. Yes, all of this actually happened!
Homo sapiens’ first encounter with cannabis was likely a fairly mild event. The plant was useful for many things and greatly valued but did not possess the potential for great harm.
People are people though and always busy. Enter cross-breeding over the years to enhance THC potency. Experimentation with different concoctions and delivery methods including ignition and inhalation.
Admixtures with the most addictive chemical on earth (sugar) and voila, we have overdosed toddlers, emergency departments full of cannabinoid hyperemesis cases, and a whole industry devoted to long-term neurocognitive issues.
Enter, appropriately, the government (make that governments) and yes Homo sapiens you only have yourselves to blame! The only difference from country to country is the manner in which the message is rendered and the form (or absence) of public discourse.
I will not delve into government motivations that may extend beyond public health protection. We know that they exist and have at times also caused immense harm. The final result is the “culture of government intervention”. The Chinese government has made its position very clear in word and deed, see Cannabis in China PART1: Cannabis History.
Hemp is valuable. In fact, the value of hemp is such that it can greatly impact a national economy. Over half of all raw hemp produced on earth is produced in China by Chinese farmers with a value estimated to exceed 8 billion USD by 2030.
This does not include the economic value from the downstream hemp products market or research benefits nor benefits related to soil or atmospheric remediation. If we understand that there are some 60 million Chinese living in abject poverty, the potential human anti-poverty benefits of hemp farming become evident.
This is not limited to China by any means and the same economics are readily applied to the United States and elsewhere. Hemp and hemp products employ, clothe, feed and protect millions of Chinese and other global citizens. This is the “culture of hemp expediency”.
Further reading: Hemp In China: A Hemp Growing Superpower
Let us first define “medicine” and dispel any myths or misconceptions. Medicine comprises the art and science of treating (not healing) illness. Medicine utilizes many resources including drugs in order to accomplish this.
Drugs themselves are not medicine. The substitution of “medicine” to stand for “drug” began with our mom when we were 2 and continuing to use the term as such is the same as believing in Santa Claus (I welcome all non-ballistic feedback).
Furthermore, in order to be utilized in medicine, a drug must meet certain fundamental criteria. Among these criteria are, 1. the drug must be defined, 2. the medical purpose for which the drug is administered must be defined, 3. there must be a mechanism of feedback so that the efficacy of the drug may be ascertained and its usage refined or discontinued, 4. the drug must be withdrawn upon achieving (or failing to achieve) its defined medical purpose.
There are many more complex criteria defining the medical use of a drug. Walking around referring to a pocket full of weed as “my medicine” is false and so is referring to the “healing power of weed”. Call a spade a spade and use a spade as a spade and all will be well.
By these criteria, Chinese physicians clearly were undertaking rigorous scientific research into the properties of all forms of cannabis thousands of years ago (and still are!). Chinese physicians took great care to record specific formulations and indications for the use of whole cannabis, derivatives, and admixtures including major surgical anesthesia.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the Chinese medical record is the apparent shortage of documentation of significant recreational use of cannabis over the same millennia. This may be a deficiency of the record but I am skeptical given the rigor of the general Chinese pharmacopeia.
It would therefore appear that it was the historically late criminal division of cannabis from long-accepted medical usage that triggered the “cannabis IS a recreational drug” rediscovery phase of the 1960s that is only now starting to unwind.
Certainly, Chinese physicians were well aware, not just of the benefits, but also of the risks and adverse effects of cannabis usage and this in no way differs from any modern pharmaceutical. Does cannabis still have a role in human medicine? It certainly does!
When we consider the rich and diverse medical history of cannabis in China, coupled with a large population below the poverty line for whom there is no easy recourse to modern medicine, is it any wonder that medical cannabis continues in China despite the risk of harsh penalties?
The benefits outweigh the risks much as anywhere else in the world. Let’s call this viewpoint “the culture of medical necessity” and it is alive and well in China
Having already defined medical cannabis we can easily define recreational cannabis use as “non-medical cannabis usage”. More specifically the usage of cannabis to deliberately alter the sensorium or neurocognitive state without a defined medical purpose. In other words, “to get high”.
By all accounts, any Chinese citizen can purchase recreational cannabis at will. Almost by definition, it is difficult or impossible to obtain accurate usage statistics for any prohibited substance (especially when disclosure may have harsh penalties), however, it is noted that the 2015 Chinese crackdown on recreational cannabis was triggered by a significant rise in usage among youth below the age of 25 years (the major at-risk age group).
Do Chinese youth experiment with their sensorium like kids all over the earth? Yes of course. It is further noted that there is significant heterogeneity with respect to enforcement of Chinese law with respect to cannabis trafficking.
By all accounts, cannabis can be obtained anywhere and in some locations and used openly without invoking a police response. For that matter, do police officers WANT to drag crying 16-year-olds to jail?
That said, I strongly suggest that foreign travelers to China NOT tempt fate in this regard! Legal policies will need to be significantly realigned with social and medical reality before we will have accurate usage data and mature public debate just like in any country with prohibition.
So for now the prohibited recreational use of cannabis in China is common and widespread. Let’s call this “the culture of recreational escapism”.
Take a large market with the promise of immense profits, add in countless willing humans wishing to escape poverty, and you have precisely the motivation, means, and manpower to successfully produce and traffic cannabis (or any other prohibited drug).
Solution? Banish poverty? Even if we could do that (and I mean for ALL humans) the recreational market for cannabis would persist and someone would fill it (in fact there would be a larger cash-fat middle class to fuel the market). Banish prohibition? Again, even if we could do that the criminal syndicates would simply become untaxable (and thus advantaged) competitors.
Make the penalties so harsh that no one would dare traffic cannabis? See above: when your children are hungry penalties are irrelevant. Furthermore, who bears the consequences of such penalties?
Certainly not those in the organization with the most to gain and the missing lackeys are easily replaced. It should be noted that the legalization of recreational cannabis in the West hardly impacted illegal trafficking. Let’s call this “the culture of market demand”.
Further reading: As Pot Goes Mainstream, Illicit Market Endures: Cannabis Weekly and Black market marijuana grows are popping up faster than law enforcement can take them down. But is legalization the cause?
The other major use of non-medical cannabis is as an aid to religious ceremonies. In my opinion, this is best viewed as a special category of cannabis usage. This form of cannabis usage has a defined purpose and specific limitations and is clearly not recreational.
There are several well-documented religious groups utilizing ceremonial cannabis in China. We don’t need to understand this as anything other than religious choice and, if vulnerable persons are not being harmed, beyond debate.
Have you ever taken the time to drive around Western Australia? Mile after mile of monotonous gum trees can get dull quickly but add in, amongst the same gum trees, mile after mile of beautiful winery estates available to explore and only too happy to offer tastings and you go from a nasty slog to life-changing vacation memories.
Is it reasonable to conclude that the winery industry has a significant impact on tourism? A resounding yes! Is that to say people travel all the way to Australia just for the wine? A resounding no, after all, Australian wine is already available in abundance at home.
The concept of cannabis tourism is nothing new and is the direct result of heterogeneity in attitudes regarding the (de)criminalization of drug use. Not so much the legalization of drug use (remember that the Netherlands has never legalized recreational cannabis) but the simple fact that the greater cultural burden results from attempts at prohibition.
The associated culture of open and progressive attitude is the central attractive feature for the casual tourist (who, let’s be honest, can obtain any desired drug substance at home). In essence, a relaxed, burden-free, and novel environment to explore is what people are seeking from tourism.
Whether or not this includes trying recreational cannabis becomes an open matter of free choice rather than furtive risk-taking. This is the “culture of freedom”.
So are Chinese citizens engaged in cannabis tourism? Yes of course. This may represent a purer form of exploratory cannabis tourism versus persons deliberately seeking new and different kinds of “high” or families relocating for the purpose of seeking cannabis-based medical therapies.
In the end, tourism is about escapism, removing barriers and burdens and exploration. Cannabis tourism provides this in abundance and Chinese tourists are definitely partaking.
The grand irony of course is that there is no legal option for cannabis tourism in the land that INVENTED cannabis tourism and culture. Try to imagine a future of legal Chinese cannabis tourism from the standpoint of ancient Chinese history and original cannabis-based medicine. The global demand would be gigantic!