No matter how slowly cannabis reform is moving in the West, there is one place where cannabis reform is moving at an even more tortoise-like pace: China and its territories, including the island of Taiwan. Merely smoking cannabis can land a user a jail term. Selling it can garner a life sentence. This even includes hemp.
The slow track of reform here is not because there are no advocates pressing for reform. Indeed, cannabis legalization efforts are gaining momentum, including marches and reform rallies. This includes a demonstration outside of the Ministry of Justice in Taipei this month by the advocacy group Green Sensation—although organizers were pressured by police—several times—to disperse. A new effort to try to crystalize political support by the group has now managed to obtain 14,000 signatures.
This reform effort is also not happening in a vacuum. The Taiwanese legislature just passed a law reducing the penalty for cannabis cultivation for personal use from a minimum sentence of five years imprisonment to one, with a maximum of seven years.
It is hard not to see why. The most abused drugs here are amphetamines.
Cannabis Reform in China
While cannabis reform has been slow to gain traction in Asia, there are signs that this is now slowly changing. Thailand, for example, has just decriminalized cannabis use and is forging ahead with a medical cultivation program. Even recreational use here is not off the table.
However, despite this “Asian Miracle,” China and its territories remain the last great uncharted territory for reform. On the Chinese mainland, even hemp seeds and CBD skincare products are banned—despite the fact that China remains the world’s largest hemp-cultivating country—producing about half of the world’s entire supply.
China classified cannabis as a dangerous narcotic drug as of 1985.
This has not always been the case. Historically, cannabis has been used for medicine and some ritual purposes of Taoism. The word ma, used to describe medical cannabis circa 2700 BCE is the oldest recorded name for the hemp plant. The earliest recorded human cultivation of cannabis was actually found on Taiwan.
During the 19th century, the Xinjiang province of China was a major producer and exporter of hash. Tons were exported annually to British India legally until 1934.
Yet, as of 2020, when the UN voted to remove cannabis from its global schedule IV listing, China joined the United States in opposing the removal of the plant from Schedule I designation.
“Science” Vs. Fact
The continuing resistance to cannabis reform by the world’s largest countries even after the scientific advances over the last 40 years—including identification of the endocannabinoid system of the body—may well, in retrospect, go down in history as one of the world’s last great unscientifically-based witch hunts. The Cannabinoid “Dark Ages” as it were.
So far, Canada remains the only G7 country to have federally legalized the drug. Germany or the United States may become the second or third countries respectively to do so, but as is clear in both countries, despite large numbers of citizens supporting such change, and even promises to proceed with reform, the issue remains stalled due to political inaction on a federal level.
China may punish users harshly, in other words, but it is continuing to do so in line with other great power countries. Cannabis remains illegal in Russia too.
Constitutional Rights are Being Violated Everywhere
There is only one way to fight injustice—and that is to organize. However, even the greatest movements for freedom and equality took decades. The formal “civil rights” movement is frequently cited as lasting from 1919 to the end of the 1960s—over 40 years. Some would argue that it is not over yet.
That is about the same amount of time, so far, that activists and reformers have been pushing against international sanctions against cannabis—even for medical use.
While it is very clear that reform can no longer be ignored anywhere, it is also clear that the entrenched forces of the status quo are deliberately delaying a global decision to move forward on both a scientific, as well as civil liberties, basis to enact complete and final cannabis reform.
Until then, being a cannabis activist, advocate, or in many cases, part of the legitimate industry, remains a highly hazardous enterprise.