by Thanh To, Grassroots/Advocacy Campaign Associate- Public Affairs at Weedmaps
After the Vietnam War, nearly 2 million Vietnamese “boat people” — including my parents — risked their lives to flee from political persecution and oppression with aspirations of finding freedom in a foreign land. Unsure of what was ahead, they relied on stories of hope, survival, and resilience from other refugees and the promise of a more stable life in the land of the free.
As a product of this political persecution, I’ve never taken the word “freedom” lightly. And growing up in a traditional Asian household, I didn’t have much of it compared to my peers. I was always sternly told to stay inside the lines — just work hard, follow the rules, and stay humble — something my fellow Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) can probably relate to. We were taught to strive for a quiet life…because a quiet life is still better than the lives full of hardships that our parents came from.
So it’s not surprising that when I was growing up, cannabis was a big no-no in our house. I grew up in the United States when it was raging a “War on Drugs.” The first time I learned about “marijuana” (see blog here about the racist origins of the word) was through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) Program. Cannabis’ misconceptions became our truth. If Uncle Sam gave us this new life full of freedom and opportunities, what reasons does he have to lie to us about cannabis?
The intent of those policies and programs wasn’t malicious, just misguided and misinformed. However, these social and political attitudes towards cannabis have contributed greatly to the worldwide stigmatization of the plant that we continue to experience today. Once I started educating myself, I realized that the worst thing about cannabis was the policies around it. Policies that were oftentimes created by people who grew up in the “Just Say No” era and continue to say “no” to this day despite support for cannabis legalization at an all-time high.
AAPI Heritage month reminds me of the struggles and sacrifices my parents made. But it is also a call to better our communities by advocating for what is right. That’s why cannabis, to me, is synonymous with my own personal freedom. It represents the ability to make my own decisions despite growing up in a traditional immigrant household and despite “authorities” constantly telling me that this plant would lead me down the primrose path.
As the worldwide acceptance of cannabis grows, most of Asia continues to treat it as an extremely taboo subject. Thailand is by far one of the most progressive countries in Asia that allow the medicinal use of cannabis. However, possessing cannabis in places like Singapore, the Philippines, or Indonesia can result in the death penalty. That’s a big reason why these negative perceptions are so ingrained into Asian culture and passed down generation to generation.
It’s ironic. Asia is known for plant medicine as part of its holistic approach to well-being. In fact, cannabis was a big part of ancient Chinese pharmacology thousands of years ago. Growing up I never took Tylenol or Advil. Instead, my parents gave me a shot of green sludge to help with a stomach ache or a whiff of medicated oil to help with my sinuses. Yet when it comes to cannabis, one of the most medically versatile plants in the world, Asia and much of the AAPI community, refuses to open up to the issue. I don’t believe that we can shift that narrative in society without first changing the attitudes within our own households.
Now this is where it gets personal. The same parents who risked their lives for the American Dream were both diagnosed with terminal illnesses decades later. I saw them routinely take the pharmaceuticals the doctors prescribed but the pain didn’t go away. Cannabis for medical purposes has been legal in California since 1996 but that means little in Asian culture. During both my parents’ illnesses, I tried to persuade them to give cannabis a chance but the cultural attitudes towards it were too strong. That breaks my heart. Because I know now that cannabis could have alleviated their pain and given them a better quality of life. Things that are indispensable when you are racing against the clock.
The AAPI community has an opportunity and responsibility to destigmatize cannabis. The community doesn’t have a great understanding of the plant because they’ve never been exposed to accurate, unbiased cannabis information. The only way to end those longstanding cultural barriers is by providing them with access to education and to start bridging the gap between generations by having those difficult conversations and changing the way they perceive cannabis. Eradicating the stigma about cannabis and ensuring that my community reaps the medical benefits of the plant will always be my passion.
As a member of the WM Policy team, it’s not lost on me that a first-generation Vietnamese American, whose first language wasn’t English, is now playing a role in shaping cannabis policy. As the acceptance of cannabis grows within the community, AAPI representation within the industry must follow — as cannabis business professionals, thought leaders, and community activists. There is an opportunity for us to continue to preserve our rich cultures and traditions but to also break molds and push boundaries to present new ways of thinking. The goal is to equip the AAPI community with education and allow them to make a decision that is best suited for themselves because ultimately that’s what freedom is all about. Cannabis will undoubtedly be a difficult conversation for many traditional Asian households. But as with many in the AAPI community, enduring difficult situations in hopes of something better is an experience that is not unfamiliar to us. And like my parent’s experience, it is a risk worth taking.
Thanh To is a Grassroots/Advocacy Campaign Associate at Weedmaps, the leading technology provider to the cannabis industry.