The History of Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp in China

If we want to understand the human relationship with cannabis we need to set aside our modern worldview. Imagine a world with no hospitals, physicians, or pharmacies. A world where even a simple tooth infection caused constant misery at best and death at worst. A hostile world full of pain, hunger, trauma, and fear. Now imagine finding a plant species capable of growing almost anywhere.

A plant that could provide food sustenance, crafting materials, and chemical substances. Substances that communicated with the cells of our bodies and minds without the need for advanced chemistry skills or special preparation. Substances that brought relief from pain, anxiety, and uncountable otherwise untreatable maladies.

Thousands of years ago we humans did find such a plant and everywhere we went we brought it with us. That plant, of course, is cannabis and it was found in the place now called China.

The History of Cannabis in China

We will never know when the first humans came into possession of cannabis. We can examine the archaeological records though. Anatomically modern humans emerged from Africa some 300,000 years ago. It is a certainty that the botanical species cannabis predates modern humans by uncountable millennia and was therefore available directly in the path of the human diaspora. It is also clear that the medicinal and food utilization of cannabis requires little or no technological manipulation; just pick and eat.

As a result we can surmise that humans entered into a permanent relationship with the cannabis plant upon first contact (13000 to 300,000 years ago) and thereafter spread the species globally.

Enter the historical period known as the Neolithic Revolution beginning in Southwest Asia some 13,000 years ago. It is during the neolithic period that human populations and social complexity expanded rapidly necessitating higher levels of organization, governance, food production methods (farming) and further supportive technologic advancements such as record-keeping (writing).

As a result, we are able to examine the written records and physical colocalization of the cannabis species. Cannabis-related terminology appears in the earliest known writing forms of Chinese characters, Sumerian cuneiform, and Egyptian hieroglyphs. From such evidence, we can surmise that human organized cultivation of cannabis began no less than 10,000 years ago.

In other “words” humans had a language describing the properties, uses and cultivation of cannabis for as long as they had written records of any type. 

Systematic recognition and experimentation regarding the medicinal properties of cannabis appear in the written Chinese pharmacopeia c. 2700 BCE. Colocalization of physical cannabis evidence may be found in tombs and pottery fragments throughout the neolithic period. Thereafter written records expand throughout China (poetry, song, agriculture, war materials such as bowstrings and rope, paper making, fabric, food products, medicine, etc.) and into the written records of every other human culture possessing writing technology.

The deliberate scientific manipulation of cannabis for specific medical usage such as surgical anesthesia is well documented in this time period. We also identify records describing the neuropharmacological (not just intoxicant) properties and the usage of cannabis in religious ceremonies.

In summary, cannabis was everywhere and was highly valued for all of human history. 

The Hemp Industry in China

The use of the term “hemp” is used to distinguish those variants of cannabis sativa that produce less than 0.3% THC and that are cultivated for their food, fibre, and non-THC chemical constituents such as cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabis variants that produce more than or equal to 0.3% THC are referred to as marijuana.

These definitions are in use throughout the world with only minor differences with respect to THC percentage (be aware of the precise application of “less than” and ” equal to” in any given jurisdiction). The US, the EU, Canada, and China all use the 0.3% THC standard in keeping with the harmonized United Nations definition.

By this definition, hemp has been cultivated in China for thousands of years. Hemp production at this time is legal in China and has never had a period in which it was not (although it does require authorization from the local public security bureau to grow and is restricted to 3 provinces at this time). The commodity, environmental remedial, and social value of hemp in China is such that production is very likely to expand over the coming years.

At this time over 50% of all hemp grown on earth is grown in China. Chinese expertise in hemp cultivation is unrivaled and at least half of all hemp-related international patents are Chinese. China also has extensive experience with manufacturing hemp-related products and substances such as CBD; a large fraction of which are exported internationally.

CBD China: production is booming but the market is not blooming

China produces vast quantities of cannabidiol (CBD) for export and internal research applications and does NOT identify CBD as a narcotic substance. In 2015 CBD produced inside China (and only from leaves and not flowers) was legalized as a permitted cosmetic additive giving rise to a massive boom in cosmetic product sales.

However, with the exception of Hong Kong (certified hemp-derived and 100% THC-free CBD remains legal), in 2021 a harsher stance was again adopted and CBD was returned to the Inventory of Prohibited Cosmetic Products. CBD-based research and development programs continue, under government license, to seek novel medicinal and other commercial properties.

Despite this recognition, however, China has never approved CBD as a permitted additive in any medicinal or food product for internal use. Given the recent rollback in the Chinese Government’s position regarding the use of CBD in cosmetics and in the absence of a public debate or timetable, the future of CBD is unclear.

The Legal Status of Marijuana in China 2022

Drug substances: an overview

History is often the place to start when you want to truly understand a situation or legal position and drug substances are no exception. Where there are humans there are drugs and where there are drugs there are drug problems and China is no exception.

China experienced great harm as a result of events and incidents culminating in the first and second Opium Wars. Marijuana prohibition in Canada can also be shown to originate in violent incidents related to opium. Many other examples of the destructive potential interactions of drug substances, nations, cultures and individuals may be found throughout history.

This is why drug-related laws are so much deeper and convoluted than would seem appropriate to an individual’s right of personal choice.

Let us remember the basic economics of cannabis criminalization. First: cannabis (as a simple plant) is inherently worthless and easy to produce (in fact cannabis will happily produce itself like any other weed and free for the picking, unlike cocaine and heroin which are not). Second: cannabis has been desired by humans almost as long as there have been humans, therefore there is and always has been a market for cannabis.

Third: attempts to prohibit cannabis via criminalization do not diminish the market but do drive it underground and thus out of range of public medical oversight, research and intervention. Fourth: criminalization converts inherently worthless cannabis into a cash commodity of substantial market value which is conveniently indexed to the severity of the attached criminal penalties. Clear enough?

Criminalization up to and including the death penalty will never stop cannabis trafficking (it will only increase the profits and associated violence) or eradicate the cannabis market (it will only increase the price). In this respect, China is the same as anywhere else on earth.

Marijuana in China

Marijuana was legally and widely produced in China for thousands of years both for internal use and exportation. In 1934 the Chinese government banned the exportation of marijuana and related products such as hashish. In 1985 China joined the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances and identified marijuana as a dangerous narcotic drug (legally equivalent to heroin and cocaine), and illegal to import, produce, traffic, distribute, possess, manufacture from or utilize.

This includes marijuana seeds which are also illegal to produce, import, traffic or possess. Wide-scale eradication campaigns have been conducted since 1998 to render hemp-producing regions and China at large “marijuana-free”. China has robust public education systems in place to inform the public of the perceived risks of marijuana usage and the legal penalties therein which extend to Chinese citizens residing in or visiting cannabis-legal foreign nations such as Canada (5.1% of the Canadian population, 1.7 million persons, is ethnically Chinese).

Further reading: China Is Blaming Canada For Its Cannabis Problem But Is Producing 50% Of The World’s Supply and China warns its citizens against marijuana after Canada legalises it.

The penalty for “personal” marijuana possession and usage in China is, according to the Law on Public Security Administration Punishments: 1. marijuana smokers shall be detained for 10 to 15 days, 2. fined a maximum of 2,000 yuan and 3. undergo a mandatory drug education program.

Penalties related to the trafficking of marijuana or marijuana products are substantially more severe and are detailed in the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China section 7, articles 347 to 357. It should be noted that possession of large amounts of marijuana (in excess of 5kg) or the systematic trafficking of marijuana substances or other drugs to minors (something the Chinese government considers, appropriately, particularly loathsome) may invoke rapidly escalating penalties up to and including the death penalty.

There is no confusion regarding the written law. The legal code is uniform and in force in every part of China (unlike variances found between American states or EU member states). There is, however, an apparent huge variance in actual legal enforcement from region to region with everything from aggressive public crackdowns, random drug testing and executions to total police insouciance and, thus, if there is any confusion it lies here.

In summary, the Chinese government is extremely serious about marijuana control and there are many Chinese and foreign nationals incarcerated in China for violation of marijuana-related drug laws. Chinese citizens, however, may not be entirely as serious about marijuana control which brings us to cannabis culture in China.

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