What does China think of legal weed? You might immediately think of the notoriously harsh penalties for people caught with weed in China. Or, in recent news, the Chinese government’s outrage at Canada for, allegedly, illegally exporting massive amounts of weed to China.
But Chinese perception of the herb isn’t so simple. China was one of the earliest countries to cultivate cannabis and use it medicinally. And though the Chinese government takes a hard line against civilian cannabis use today, the nation holds over a thousand cannabis-related patents.
Though China’s relation to weed is mired in politics and history, ancient and modern, the nation has quietly worked its way to the forefront of the green rush.
A History of Cannabis Cultivation In China
Despite China’s notorious weed prohibition, some of the earliest examples of cannabis farming occurred in ancient China. According to Psychology Today, the Chinese have been farming hemp since 10,000 BC.
Not only do artifacts like ropes, tombs and pottery show traces of hemp, but Chinese record keepers made reference to it in their accounts. One of the most esteemed texts in Chinese culture, the Book of Documents describes hemp growing as a sign of prosperity. This classic text was compiled by none other than Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. However, many of the excerpts within it predate Confucius by over a thousand years.
These ancient societies farmed hemp for the same reasons that we do today. You can make almost anything—medicine, food, clothing, paper, buildings and more modern inventions like plastic and fuel—from hemp. It’s also an easy crop to cultivate since it’s more pest-resistant than most and returns nutrients, mainly nitrogen, to the soil. Per hemp.org, this made the soil especially suitable for crop rotation, especially for soybeans and wheat.
But cannabis in China was not limited to hemp. Weed, the type of cannabis that gets you high, was also an important part of ancient Chinese life. About 2,500 years ago, Emperor Shen Nung, the Father of Chinese medicine, documented some of the earliest uses of medicinal cannabis. In “The Herbal,” the Emperor details cultivating the “female” plant—meaning the flowering and psychoactive form of cannabis. To treat hundreds of conditions, he recommends adding the cannabis flower to tea, according to Northwest Leaf.
Not only did the emperor himself get high, but Taoists burned weed as part of their rituals. Scholars agree that cannabis inspired the hallucinogenic experiences of its earliest practitioners in the 4th century BCE.
The Chinese Grow 50 Percent Of The World’s Cannabis
But like so many other nations, China made cannabis illegal in the 20th century. The stigma against weed in China is an offshoot of the US’s War on Drugs and cannabis propaganda campaign. More deeply rooted, however, is a cultural wariness of drugs stemming from the Opium Wars.
Despite this, prohibition has not stopped Chinese farmers from growing weed. Its benefits, now including its value, increasingly outweighs the risk. According to Chinese media, China produces half of the world’s cannabis today.
Cannabis farming occurs across the country, from the Heilongjiang province in the north to Yunnan in the southwest legally grow cannabis in its non-psychoactive form. Since the 1970s, the Chinese government has funded cannabis research, including using it in military uniforms and medicines according to High Times.
And farming weed in China for illegal purposes is on the rise too. “There are no official figures for the amount of the plant China produces each year but plantations are flourishing –both for commercial and illicit drug use,” wrote the South China Morning Post.
China Holds More Than Half Cannabis Patents
Weed in China might be an expanding national agricultural industry, but Chinese entrepreneurs have their sights set on foreign legal weed markets. A few years ago, western media erupted with the news that China held more than half of the 600 weed patents registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization.
There are a lot more weed patents today, but the ratio is about the same. To date, China has 1,391 cannabis patents out of a total of 2,379. This means that China controls 58 percent of the world’s cannabis intellectual property. This is even more impressive when you consider the resources Canada, Israel and the United States are dedicating to studying cannabis.
Chinese weed patents cover just about everything. Cannabis for hair growth, pregnant women, constipation, blood pressure—you name it, China has a weed patent for it. Many of these patents come with the heading “traditional Chinese medicine.” Despite late 20th century attempts to stop hemp farming, Chinese weed entrepreneurs are hearkening back to the herb’s ancient Chinese roots.
Canada Is Importing Weed Illegally To China
The Chinese government funds hemp research and Chinese nationals patent cannabis medicines. But publicly, officials decry Canada for importing illegal weed in China. According to the Toronto Star, 20 percent of Canadian weed was sold illegally outside of Canada in 2017.
Considering that Canada is one of the world’s biggest weed producers, 20 percent is a lot of weed. Specifically, it’s $1.2 billion CAD. There is no way to officially chart how much illegal Canadian weed made its way to China. However, it would make sense that much of it made its way to China since millennials there are reportedly smoking more weed and China is one of the world’s biggest markets.
The Hypocrisy of Weed In China
China’s approach to weed is based on the distinction between these two types of cannabis. China sees hemp as an important domestic agricultural industry that needs to be researched, patented and sold. By comparison, weed should not be legal, nevermind smuggled into the country.
But the distinction between hemp and weed in China is perhaps too neat. China’s centuries-old psychoactive weed tradition and modern science, specifically the health benefits of combining THC and CBD, will cause people to question: If hemp is legal, why isn’t weed?