Selling Cannabis to Asians

By Chris Roberts @cbloggyWednesday, Nov 11 2015

A few years ago, State Controller Betty Yee went to the funeral of her close friend's mother, who had died of cancer.

At the service, after prayers and eulogies had been made and the proper respect paid to the deceased, Yee's friend stood up. Instead of more words of comfort, she issued a proclamation that shocked her mother's straight-laced, "very conservative" family and friends.

"I just want you all to know," she said, according to Yee's retelling, "that my mom died really happy."

Toward the end of her life, the daughter said, her suffering mother wanted to try medical marijuana. Through the San Francisco cannabis community, she found some — and it helped.

Let's put this in context. In San Francisco's Chinese-American community, cannabis is loathed and feared so much that it may as well be heroin. Yee's friend's confession was the equivalent of a pronouncement at an Irish Catholic wake that Mary Katherine had dabbled in cross-dressing before she passed on — or that the scion of a red state Bible-thumping family was gay.

Cannabis use remains taboo in Asian American communities, according to Tiffany Wu and Monica Lo. As has been repeated time and again in this newspaper, the people most resistant to cannabis dispensaries in their neighborhoods in San Francisco have been the Chinese. (See "No Ma," SF Weekly, 4/22/2015).

Wu and Lo are two Chinese-American twentysomethings with the kind of credentials that please high-achieving immigrant parents: Wu is a Harvard Law School graduate, and Lo spent years as a creative director at a New York City design firm.

Now they're both in San Francisco, smoking weed (and being photographed in the act in for the San Francisco Chronicle).

Both of them used cannabis for years before telling their families. Lo says she only "came out" — note the word choice — to her parents earlier this year.

And just in time, as they're both involved in the cannabis industry (Wu as a lawyer; Lo in product design). To help others avoid their decade-long ordeal of denial and secrecy, the pair co-founded Asian Americans for Cannabis Education. The organization seeks to change what has been a stubborn cultural resistance among Asian Americans to embrace the cannabis plant.

Lo and Wu have a hypothesis as to why. In most Asian countries, drug use is severely punished. They also point to the Confucian values of education and filial obedience as one possible reason for Asians' aversion to weed. People may fear that marijuana use can lead to failure in the classroom, or be reluctant to challenge their parents' preconceived notions about the danger of the drug. Then there's the group shaming.

"In Asian culture, what you do reflects on your family," says Wu, who notes that positive role models of successful marijuana users are in short supply in the Asian community. "We practice what we preach. We both went to good schools, got good jobs, and we're pretty successful."

That sort of example, they hope, can start to crack the almost ironclad reluctance in the Asian community to see cannabis as a legitimate medicine and an acceptable recreational drug.

Yee thinks that the state's recent move to regulate medical marijuana at the state level may also help sway Chinese Americans, who she describes as "very law-abiding and conservative when it comes to public safety."

Maybe that could also sway the city's most influential Chinese Americans: the ones who work at City Hall.

In Yee's Sunset District, a series of laws passed by district Supervisor Katy Tang and her predecessor, current Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu, all but forbid taxpaying dispensaries. Both politicians say they were following the will of their constituents — and they were — but they also declined to correct much of the Reefer Madness-worthy rhetoric that came from the neighborhood.

Yee also recently set foot in a certain type of small business where Mayor Ed Lee — who has visited "hundreds" of small businesses during his time in office, according to his press secretary — has feared to tread: One of San Francisco's roughly 30 medical cannabis dispensaries.

It was while standing inside a dispensary — The Apothecarium on Market Street in the Castro — that Yee recounted the tale of her friend's mother.

"It's been a tough sell," she said, noting that government has "played a role" — by collecting taxes and by setting rules — in demonstrating that weed can be used responsibly by successful people — and indeed, that it can improve their lives.

It's time for San Francisco city government to play that role, too. If a Harvard Law grad can come out to her parents about smoking weed, the mayor can come out to a dispensary and say hello.