China For millennia, cannabis has been an integral part of Chinese industry and medicine—the longest recorded use of cannabis of any culture. It is now illegal in its narcotic form, although the hemp industry is legal and thriving. Chinese companies have also shown remarkable alacrity in obtaining cannabis patents in recent years.
History of cannabis in China
Cannabis has been cultivated in China for at least 6,000 years. Early Neolithic farming communities cultivated it along with millet, sorghum, beans and rice as one of their main crops, and utilised the seeds and fibres to make foodstuffs, paper, oil, textiles, rope and medicine.
Over the centuries, various respected Chinese pharmacopoeias have included lengthy treatises on the many benefits of cannabis and hemp seeds, leaves and flowers. According to legend, the emperor Shen Nung (c. 2700BCE) discovered the medical uses for cannabis and many other plants; in around 500CE, this ancient lore was collated and used as the basis for the Pen T’sao Ching, an early and highly influential Chinese pharmacopoeia.
Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government has been actively researching the existing cultivation and usage of cannabis in China. Over the decades, hundreds of studies have been performed on the properties of seeds and fibre strains and their potential in industry and food production. However, since the 1990s the government has also been active in eradicating cannabis plantations in many areas of rural China.
Cultural use of cannabis
According to reports from travellers, fewer plants are seen growing and cannabis is becoming harder to source since the government began to crack down in the 1990s. Despite this, cannabis is still cultivated and used in the traditional manner in much of rural China. Its seeds are roasted or eaten raw as a snack, particularly in Yunnan province, a traditional hub of cultivation; its fibres are still processed into textiles, rope and paper.
Cannabis is known as ma or da ma (‘great’ hemp) in China, while female flowers are referred to as ma fen (fragrant hemp branch) and the seeds as ma zi or huo ma ren.
Medical use of cannabis is not established in conventional Chinese medicine, although there are various herbal preparations available that utilise the cleaned seeds—particularly remedies for stomach pain and indigestion. Traditional medicine makes far greater use of cannabis and herbal remedies in general; indeed, cannabis is viewed as one of the fifty fundamental herbs of Chinese herbalism.
Cultivation of cannabis in China
Cannabis grows wild in many parts of China, and although plants found in the northern latitudes will generally be low in cannabinoids and unpleasant to smoke, those found in the southern regions may be of greater interest to recreational users. In these areas, cultivation is primarily for personal consumption, although farmers will often be persuaded to part with some of their crop if approached correctly.
Dali City in southwestern Yunnan province is known to be a hub of cannabis cultivation. Yunnan province as a whole is known for its abundant wild cannabis that can be found growing by paths, alongside houses and in gardens. Although other areas of widespread cannabis cultivation exist, Dali city is particularly famous throughout China for its culture of cannabis use.
Xinjiang is also an area of widespread cannabis cultivation. Interestingly, it is reported that the bulk of the cannabis produced in Xinjiang is processed into hashish, a traditional of the ethnic Uyghurs (a Turkic group indigenous to central and eastern Asia) that make up around 60% of the population of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. A predominantly Muslim region, a tradition of hash-making has apparently evolved as techniques have been exported from elsewhere in the Islamic world.
Recreational cannabis in China
Recreational cultivation of cannabis in China is not widespread, due to the lack of availability of high quality strains, and the severity of the laws. However, higher-potency drug strains are grown in Yunnan and Xinjiang, and may often be sold in the form of rolled cigarettes.
Hashish is smuggled in from Afghanistan and Pakistan to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and weed imported from Africa, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam is also relatively common. Higher-grade cannabis may also be sourced from Burmese (Myanma) communities living near the border in southern Yunnan province.
Police beginning to crack down on cannabis
Cannabis is still the most common ‘street drug’ in China, although its use has become increasingly demonised by authorities. According to anecdotal evidence, cannabis use only became an issue over the last two to three decades, whereas prior to that it was generally ignored by law enforcement officers who either did not know what it was or were happy to smoke it themselves.
Now, Chinese local authorities are actively collating information on cannabis smokers and the small-scale networks that have begun to form. In keeping with China’s embrace of online shopping, cannabis is increasingly being sold through online message boards and marketplaces that allow anonymous transactions to take place; however, these too are subject to scrutiny and it is debatable whether they are any more secure.
The modern cannabis trade
China has grown in importance as a global trafficking hotspot over the last thirty years or so, following the opening of the borders to foreign trade and tourism in the 1980s. However, drugs such as opium, MDMA, methamphetamine and cocaine are far more popular among the young urban demographic that constitutes the bulk of the demand; cannabis is seen as an out-dated, rustic pursuit that holds little social appeal.
As demand for cannabis is low, supply networks are correspondingly small in scale: growers usually grow for personal use or to supply a small circle of local customers, and dealers in urban areas too are small-scale and either sell to small circles of expats or local smokers, or meet the needs of tourists visiting the more licentious streets. ‘Street’ dealers typically have low-quality products on offer; to find higher grades, asking around friends for a good contact often yields better results.
There are numerous foreign dealers in urban areas, often nationals of African, Arab or Southeast Asian countries. Africans in particular are associated both with street dealing and importing cannabis and hashish into China; in recent years, there have been several ‘clean-up’ operations along with one or two high-profile arrests.
Cannabis arrests & sentences
In China, it is possible to receive the death penalty for being in possession of just five kilograms or more of cannabis. It is believed that the Chinese authorities execute hundreds of people every year—more than the rest of the world combined. Thousands of long custodial sentences—from five years’ to life imprisonment—are also issued.
Although relatively low compared to other drugs, there is a demand for cannabis; along with the high price it can command in major cities, this incentivises some to attempt to traffic cannabis into the country. In 2010, a Nigerian man was detained at Beijing Airport with around 87kg of cannabis in his possession—the largest single bust that year.
In 2009, another Nigerian national was sentenced to death, for allegedly supplying local Guangdong dealers with just 6kg of cannabis. It is believed that this man, Osonwa Okey Noberts, is currently on remand awaiting his execution. In 2009, police seized and destroyed six tonnes of heroin, opium and hemp in the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang province, which had been smuggled over the border from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Purchasing cannabis—do’s and don’ts
Tourists in rural areas can often find cannabis for sale, and asking around in guest houses and cafes will usually eventually provide results, providing enquiries are made discreetly. Quality is usually low and prices typically reflect this (10RMB/€1.22 for a handful of up to an ounce, depending on circumstances). Foreign travellers should be wary of being overcharged; however, in places where there are few options for buyers, high prices may be unavoidable.
In urban areas where law enforcement is more present, it is advisable to exercise caution, as flagrant use of cannabis may attract attention, and is punishable by imprisonment and even deportation. However, cannabis use in public has only become unacceptable in recent years, as authorities struggle to control urban areas that are rapidly changing as foreign trade and tourism increases; there are still many urban areas of China where it is smoked openly without attracting negative attention.
It is reportedly possible to purchase cannabis or hashish with relative ease in major cities such as Shanghai, either through expatriate smokers or through street ‘solicitors’ of massages and other tourist attractions. Prices in urban areas are often much higher (10-100RMB/€1.22-€12.20 per gram), but the quality is often correspondingly high, and imported hashish and high-grade herbal cannabis is more common.
The Chinese hemp industry
The heartland of the legal hemp industry is unquestionably China. The world’s largest hemp producer by far, it exports raw hemp and processed hemp goods to the entire world, particularly Europe and North America. The bulk of hemp cultivation occurs in Shandong and Yunnan provinces.
Currently, a campaign is underway to increase the amount of land devoted to its cultivation, thereby reducing dependence on cotton and bringing much-needed work to the underemployed rural labour force. Communist Party officials have stated that the move could bring up to three million rural farmers out of poverty, and double annual incomes from around 2,000RMB (€242.72) to over 4,000RMB (€485.44).
In 2009, a new hemp fibre processing plant was built in Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southern Yunnan. The factory, owned by China Hemp Industrial Holding Investment Co Ltd., has an annual capacity of 2,000 tonnes. The Chinese government has stated that by 2020, further cultivation bases will be built in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Gansu and Anhui provinces.
What next for cannabis in China?
It has been widely reported that Chinese companies hold 309 of the 606 global patents currently registered with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Coupled with the ongoing campaign to modernise and expand the hemp industry, it seems that China’s long relationship with cannabis is far from over.
It is important to document the history and current events of the ongoing drug war in every country that it occurs—for this reason, organisations like the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam are crucial as they attempt to bring together information from various credible sources in order to provide the most accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on the present global situation.