A former Mayor of Oakland, the only Chinese-American candidate for Mayor in San Francisco and a prominent political consultant are among the many members of the Chinese-American community who have spoken out for and against the legalization of recreational marijuana use in San Francisco as the City implements the new state law.
Opposition in Chinese American Community
“A drug is a drug. It shouldn’t be used for recreational [purposes]” says Ellen Zhou, an anti-cannabis activist, a candidate for San Francisco’s Mayoral election scheduled for June. Zhou is the leading spokesperson for the Chinese-American community against the legalization of recreational marijuana use. Zhou wants to change the City’s former laws controlling cannabis use for medicinal purposes, instead of adopting new laws that would allow cannabis to be used recreationally.
On the November 2016 ballot, California voters approved recreational marijuana use statewide with implementation beginning on January 1, 2018. In order for pot to be sold recreationally, a city such as San Francisco needed to create local legislation. It’s this implementing legislation that has attracted so much controversy.
Seventy-four percent of San Francisco voters supported the legalization of recreational consumption, but this strong support has not deterred those who oppose it.
For months, the anti-cannabis Chinese-American community in San Francisco has organized street protests, given countless hours of public comment at City Hall, led business strikes in the Sunset District, and even called for the recall of former Mayor Ed Lee, the first Chinese American mayor of the city who passed away last month and who appeared to be supportive of cannabis.
New San Francisco Laws
In December 2017, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation that implements the State law allowing the recreational sale of cannabis. This new law loosens some rules compared to the prior restrictions on medicinal marijuana dispensaries. For example, the new law reduces the minimum distance for a cannabis store from a school, from 1,000 feet to 600 feet, and lifts all the neighborhood bans on cannabis stores citywide. On the other hand, one of the major features of San Francisco’s program is an “equity” feature that “benefits low-income residents, people displaced from their homes and people with marijuana convictions.”
Supporters of Legalization
During this cannabis legalization movement, those in the Chinese-American community that support it spoke up also, including some politcal power players.
A prominent political consultant, David Ho, opened the first cannabis store in Sunset District despite strong community pressure in opposition. Ho was labeled as a "betrayer" by the anti-cannabis Chinese-American community. A similar controversy swarmed businessmen Richard Vuong and Havan Phui when they successfully entered the Portola neighborhood with their cannabis products. “My job now is to persuade and educate them, to let them know the benefits of medical cannabis,” says Phui.
The concerns from the Chinese-American community on cannabis focus on safety and children. Some worry that the drug would negatively impact children, luring minors to smoke, and cause a public security concern as cannabis would attract criminals, increase DUI accidents, and fill streets with the smell of cannabis.
Former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan opposes the idea that legalization of recreational use harms the children and public safety. “It’s impossible for a 5-year-old kid to buy cannabis in a legal place. No one under 21 is allowed,” she says. And she emphasizes that cannabis stores will have security guards. Quan also has ambitions to open a cannabis store, as a way to eliminate the stigma.
Nick Lau, a medical cannabis researcher and patient, says that growing up in the Sunset District, “It’s way easier to get cannabis than alcohol,” referring to the active underground sales that require no ID checks. Lau believes that cannabis legalization will regulate the market.
Cannabis patients have also fought back by saying it’s a patient's right to use cannabis to relieve pain and depression. Elizabeth Silver, a member from Safe Access, an advocacy group for marijuana use, says that “cannabis really helps some of my friends with cancer,” continuing, “I use cannabis, and I am a 65-year-old senior woman. Why are they afraid of me?”
Concerning the stereotype that cannabis is a part of Chinese herbal medicine, the opinions are divided as well. Many people from the cannabis industry argued that the cannabis is part of the Chinese medicine. Dr. Hongji Zhong, a licensed expert in Chinese medicine and a retired UCSF scholar explained that cannabis does appear to be part of the Chinese medicine culture, but it is not one of the major ingredients, and it’s still strictly controlled and seldom used in real practice. “Cannabis is addictive, and it will be hard to give it up once you get addicted to it,” he adds.
Since cannabis is still an illegal drug under Federal law, earlier this year Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a memo from former President Barack Obama’s administration. The Obama era memo had discouraged the Department of Justice's prosecution of cannabis users in states like Colorado that had legalized it. With this new directive from President Donald Trump’s Attorney General, the Trump administration is discouraging the purchase and sale of marijuana. This unexpected signal from the Feds has reignited the cannabis debate in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community.