Bridging the Asian cannabis cultural divide in B.C.

Canadian cannabis sector reaches out to minority groups for support, investment and product acceptance, but reactions within those communities vary radically

Barinder Rasode, CEO of Grow Tech Labs, member of NICHE Canada's board and former Surrey city councillor | Photo: Rob Kruyt, BIV files

While Canada’s cannabis industry might be revelling in the entrepreneurial optimism and growing acceptance of the country’s new legalized environment, some minority communities – especially those from East and Southeast Asia – remain staunchly opposed. But the cannabis sector is rolling out a “counteroffensive.”

NICHE Canada (the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education) is planning a cross-culture campaign to launch in December to educate members of minority communities – with the hope that it will not only boost investment from the sizable number of investors from those communities, but also gain more widespread acceptance for cannabis companies and products.

“What happened over time was, people from those communities aren’t against cannabis per se, but they are against the crimes that have been committed in the community based on cannabis,” said former Surrey city councillor Barinder Rasode, who is now CEO of Grow Tech Labs and a member of NICHE Canada’s board. “In some communities, some youth have gotten [criminal] records because cannabis became illegal. So we are now shifting back for those communities, recognizing that cannabis is not a substance that’s a detriment to society, but rather as something that contributes to health and healing.”

The campaign is set to be multi-pronged. Rasode said material will be sent to traditional and social media, and NICHE will engage community members like doctors and prominent cannabis users to share their experience with others.

The hope, Rasode said, is to normalize minority communities’ perception of the substance – perhaps even seeing health supplements containing the cannabis chemical CBD in common use – within five years.

Rasode also noted that, while NICHE has seen significant resistance to normalization in some communities, a large number of prominent South Asian Canadians have already got on board, serving as owners, board members and executives in the first wave of Canadian cannabis firms. Part of that is a result of simple demographics, she said.

“A lot of the South Asians in Canada came from North India, from Punjab, where it is rural, farming community,” Rasode said. “So if you look at the disproportionate number of South Asian people involved in Canadian farming – whether it’s blueberry farming, nurseries or other kinds of produce – this is a natural fit. It fits both the perspectives of being farmers and being entrepreneurs, and I think adoption came early.”

The Chinese-Canadian community has been among the most hostile to cannabis legalization. In the weeks following the October 17 legalization, Chinese-language social media saw a wave of negative articles, including posts warning parents about cannabis-laced candy during Halloween, articles lamenting Canadian companies now promoting cannabis tourism and even some calling for a petition for Ottawa to reconsider the change.

Sing Tao Daily Vancouver editor-in-chief Victor Ho said he isn’t surprised by the reaction, adding that any efforts by Canada’s cannabis industry to promote itself in the local Chinese community – business or otherwise – will likely be met with staunch opposition due to the deep scars left by illegal drugs on the Chinese psyche since the mid-1800s Opium Wars in China, which are widely perceived by community members as a major Chinese setback.

“Chinese people – no matter whether they are from the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau or overseas – they hold this victimized feeling from that incident,” Ho said. “They felt the entire populace has been set back by the Opium War, and they treat marijuana the same as opium – as an illegal drug. The cultural mentality is to simply resist, no matter if it’s cocaine, opium or marijuana.… The community belief is that foreigners used this illegal substance to weaken the Chinese people, and it’s a psychological reaction that will be very, very hard to change.”

The British defeated the Chinese in a series of conflicts over Britain’s wish to sell opium in China.

China subsequently lost its status as the world’s largest economy and suffered from foreign domination and colonization. Ho surmised that the damage to the Chinese cultural psyche is so sizable that any push by cannabis companies to try to normalize the substance in the community might have the opposite effect.

“This is not a good opportunity to integrate the Chinese community with the so-called mainstream.”

Ho added that it will be interesting to see whether cannabis legalization will influence the Chinese vote in next year’s federal election.

“In contrast, you risk further singling-out the Chinese community on the marijuana issue. Many keep in silence, but opinions have not changed. They recognize they will not change the reality, so they will be quiet and see what happens next. But they are not happy.”

A quick survey of one Chinese-Canadian business group in Metro Vancouver revealed very low interest in cannabis investing.

This situation, however, may be different globally.

Supreme Cannabis Co. (TSX-V:FIRE) CEO Navdeep Dhaliwal said a colleague recently travelled to Hong Kong to meet investors and found the investment community quite receptive to the sector. That reflects Dhaliwal’s own experience in other foreign markets like Great Britain.

“Our sentiment is that the interest is growing because the opportunity is so large, and interest from investors is growing on a global basis,” Dhaliwal said, adding that Hong Kong’s western influence may have affected investors’ acceptance of cannabis. “Given it was in Hong Kong versus Beijing, I think that makes a difference. But in terms of cultural stigma, I think after 100 years of prohibition, that stigma may exist more strongly in some cultures versus others. Our view is, every day, average people have some exposure to the medical benefits of cannabis. It’s only increasing in terms of people who know someone who has experienced benefits from using the plant for wellness purposes, and I think that carries through to investors.”

Dhaliwal added that Supreme – which has its vision staked in the global marketplace as cannabis, medical or otherwise, gains acceptance in more countries – and the fledgling industry would benefit from a more diverse and widespread investment base that could include Chinese investors and South Asian counterparts.

“To date, this has been a fairly volatile industry,” Dhaliwal said. “But as interest increases, that helps with the maturity and stabilization in the market. And you will get far more diversity and specialization in the market; investors will start to look for more pharmaceutical-esque companies in terms of business models. As you increase the capital base, you will see more and more sophisticated companies as well.”

Markets like Thailand and Malaysia are already considering legalizing medical use of cannabis, he noted.

“Those are typically conservative markets when it comes to cannabis, but that’s an example where people are asking more and more questions about the benefits – and people are taking a closer look,” Dhaliwal said. “If you are an investor anywhere in the world, this should come on your radar screen as something to learn more about.”