Imagine: You’re an expat living in Shanghai. Your semi-retired, California dreamin’ parents have been taking the edge off their aches and pains with a little pot, and now they’ve arrived in Shanghai for a visit. You take them out to a hip local bar for a drink (isn’t Shanghai trendy). Suddenly, the police arrive and shut the place down. Before you know it, everyone (or maybe just foreigners without ID) is at the local police station squatting for a urine test. Your retired parents just tested positive (30 days, they say). It’s a senior citizen arrest! Get out your wallet (a sizable bribe might just work). But, then again. . .
Imagine again: Hypothetical person—you’re at work when out-of-the-blue two or three local police officers show up asking to chat. Instead of complying, you jump on your scooter and . . . scoot . . . Later you try to explain that the test results are “left over” from your summer exploits back home. Wait, we’re past the 30-day marker.
This is expat-China on pot: Lose your job. Go to jail. Get deported. Do not pass go. The Shanghai police have recently started raiding even the most mundane bars–those not typically known as hot spots for drug use. Some expats are reporting that when a drug test (hair sample or urine) is positive, the police will allow you to remain in the country if you name five other people who use drugs. U.S. consulates across China are warning foreigners of an increase in bar raids targeting Westerners with random drug testing. Which makes sense—drugs, not just pot—are everywhere. Targeting users instead of dealers is the new strategy. China’s constant social media monitoring is leading to more arrests as well.
The legalization of pot on the other side of the Pacific is also creating some sticky situations for companies and schools that hire expats in China. If you’re job hunting in the PRC, your future employer is now likely to ask about legal pot use outside of China.
If you move to China, expect to endure a wacky, yet methodical, state medical exam—abdominal ultrasound, chest x-rays, heart monitoring, and blood work (the Western diagnosis is almost always fatty liver). It’s been a while since I’ve experienced that exam, but I wouldn’t be surprised if hair sampling shows up soon. Don’t arrive looking for a residence permit if you’re smuggling leftovers in your bloodstream. Your employer may be offering housing and working papers, but it won’t want to get you out of jail if that’s where you land.
Going to jail for any length of time for smoking pot in Shanghai may not seem harrowing or even very likely, but it does happen—if only as a way to intimidate people into giving up other people—and it’s happening more frequently. More likely, you’ll be immediately deported. If you’re not a drug dealer, you’re going back to whence you came. It’s not Singapore, after all, where potential drug dealers (in other words, all people on the plane) are warned about the death penalty as the flight lands—but it’s not Vietnam, either, where my daughter watched someone throw down a huge pile of marijuana on the bar table next to her. . . (she left). No, China is strategic when meting out the death penalty for drug dealers: Ask Canada.
Lots of people in the U.S. have asked me about drugs in China. It’s easy enough to catch a whiff of pot wafting over French Concession sidewalks. Plenty of high school students—so crafty—seem to come by it as well. So I’m told. The poor Uyghurs often get the blame for distribution, here.
China has fraught history with drugs—the British Empire still rankles the Chinese. China exported silk, porcelain, and tea (luckily, Brits don’t get drunk on tea). While Western goods certainly found their way to China, it’s fair to say the British Empire, with its mighty military, had not much more to import than bangers and mash. The trade deficit (see how history repeats itself) was easily reconciled when the British imported Indian opium to balance the sheets. At the worst point in China’s opium crisis, almost one-third of the population, nearly 100 million people, were addicted to opium.
After the communists took over in 1949, Mao Zedong undertook the kind of social re-education program China is known for: the government forced nearly 10 million people into rehab. It also got rid of drug dealers and wiped out poppy crops. Ten million saved from opium, forty-five million lost to starvation.
Cannabis has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Cannabis investment opportunities are coming to Shanghai, too. The South China Morning Post, reporting on China’s massive hemp-farming industry, calls the country the new Cannabis SuperPower (for bonus points, find the Robert Frost reference in the SCMP story).
Nothing makes history more interesting than comparisons to the present. Chinese drug lords have entered the illegal end of legal growing in California. And while China takes a harsh view of its residents using drugs, it is setting new drug export records: It has long been a leader of exports in dirty fentanyl, but now Fifty percent of the world’s cannabis comes from China. Call it karma.
** Pardon my lack of original images in this story—I think it’s clear why. All images are copyright free.