• April 14, 2021

America: My Asian Immigrant Parents Feared Cannabis but Now Sell It

 America: My Asian Immigrant Parents Feared Cannabis but Now Sell It

Photo by Shawn Lipowski

“I want to grow sa hemp-u in farm and make a clothes, cars and house,” my mother chirps to herself, in her heavy Japanese accent, “sa hemp-u is like a magic.” She gleams while gathering the soiled dishes scattered around the kitchen table. My father finishes the rest of his wine and passes her his glass. 

“I bought Aurora last year,” he interrupts, referring to the Canadian corporation Aurora Cannabis, “and then it went so down because of corona and then went up after the stock split and it went up a lot more, and I sold.” 

He then asks whether I foresee the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Jersey, where the issue was on the ballot (and eventually passed) last November. 

It wasn’t always like this: my parents being open to marijuana. In point of fact, it was quite the opposite. As immigrants from Japan and Korea, where marijuana is even more stigmatized than in the US, my parents perceived weed as equivalent to a deadly substance. It wasn’t so long ago when I’d surreptitiously hide my paraphernalia, open my windows wide, light five incense and then dowse myself in Febreze after I got stoned. 

It was even more recently, in 2016, when I wanted to buy my father CBD to treat his anxiety and insomnia—an alternative solution to Xanax, which he was taking. I scrapped this idea soon after talking to my brother, who argued my father would react negatively to the suggestion of a cannabis product.

But now, a few years later, I’m sitting opposite my father, quite high, listening to him go off on whether he should buy Cronos (another Canadian cannabis corporation). He scrolls through Yahoo Finance, studying the numbers, reading them aloud. I doze off—

How the fuck did this happen? I giggle and shake my head at the comical irony of the situation before I transition into serious contemplation.

How the fuck did this happen…?

How it Fucking Happened

In March of 2019, my parents traveled to the Anaheim Convention Center in California for the Natural Products Expo West. The trade show — cited as “the world’s largest natural, organic and healthy products event” — hosted 3,600 companies and 86,000 attendees.

On the first day, they arrive early and decide to kill time by attending the seminar Cannabidiol: A Trillion Dollar Molecule? They follow the map to the lecture hall of the Marriott Platinum Ballroom. Uncertain about what to anticipate, they stare at the projection, sip on their lukewarm, black coffee and watch dozens of people take their seats. A few minutes later, the speaker, Raj Gupta, the chief scientific officer of Folium Biosciences, enters the stage and speaks about the scientific and clinical history of CBD and its profitability in the marketplace. My father takes pictures of each slide, and my mother follows the pamphlet. Slide after slide, their perceptions gradually transform from perceiving cannabis as dangerous and taboo into a growing curiosity about its benefits. My mother’s intrigued about incorporating it into her lifestyle, and my father recognizes its financial potential. 

Listening to an expert talk eloquently using business jargon and showing graphs and charts was vastly different from how cannabis was typically conveyed to them. Furthermore, the professional context set them with ease, elevating a level of trust and openness. A 2018 poll from consulting firm AT Kearney shows how this shift in view applies to many Americans. When cannabis is associated with a well-known company in the health and wellness industry, 44% of participants — a sizable amount by any count — reported an improved perception, 48% said they were neutral or had no change in perception, while only 9% had a worse perception.

After the lecture, my parents explore the rest of the show, searching for products to distribute in their eight, family-owned, retail stores. They expected to see healthy snacks, vitamins and beauty items; however, they were shocked by the profusion of marijuana products. 

“There were so many CBD thingys like a gels, coffee, gummies. We saw YouTube video of show last year and didn’t see many marijuana thingys but there was so much when we went,” my mother recounts. From 2014 to 2018, the number of cannabis brands in the US jumped from 166 to 2,650, according to Nielsen.

CBD and hemp products are on the rise. Recently, you’ve probably seen your CVS, Walgreens, Whole Foods, local coffee shop or even Sephora stocked with beauty, cooking and health products with a marijuana leaf proudly stamped onto the package. CBD and hemp have infiltrated the health and wellness industry, touted as a miracle for their medicinal and therapeutic properties. Even though Epidiolex, a seizure prescription, is the only FDA-approved cannabis-derived product, other companies still claim their products are legitimate (Marinol, Syndros and Cesamet are the only FDA-approved synthetic cannabis products).

Cannabis research, specifically CBD, has been increasing, but scientific studies are still in their nascent stage. Americans favor legalization—68% according to a 2020 Gallup poll—yet only 15 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, have legalized recreational marijuana. 

So, why the sudden boom?

The passing of the Farm Bill (or the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) certainly made an impact. The bill included provisions for the wide-scale legalization of hemp—as long as the hemp production complies with state and federal regulations. The bill also legalizes CBD, albeit with caveats.

Opportunists are prancing at the chance for even more profits, which made the plant my parents once feared mainstream. Target and Walmart snuck into the industry, and are now selling cannabis products in their stores. Big Tobacco and Bigger Alcohol corporations hopped in as well. Anheuser-Busch partnered with Tilray and Altria, the tobacco company that owns Phillip Morris, invested in Cronos Group Inc, a Canadian cannabis corporation.

Investment group Cowen & Co. asserts “CBD offerings could conservatively generate $16 bn in retail sales” by 2025, compared to the $600 million retail sales in 2018. Spending on marijuana lobbying increased from $2.78 million in 2018 to $5.76 million in 2019. Both Anheuser-Busch and Altria have lobbied for hemp and CBD.

Although there’s an immense shift in the embrace of cannabis products, residue from the ‘War on Drugs’ lingers. My parents believed in the anti-cannabis narrative pushed by the American government and media, reaffirming the narrative they were fed growing up in Asia. 

In Korea, recreational marijuana use can result in five years of prison and a fine of up to 50 million won (roughly $44,000 US). Japan is similar, although the penalty can surmount to 2 million yen (roughly $18,000 US). In both countries, the governments have gone so far as to warn their citizens of prosecution for smoking weed in a country where recreational marijuana is legal. You can buy CBD and grow hemp in Japan, but Korea requires a prescription for CBD. Both countries are loosening their stringent cannabis laws but at a snail pace compared to the US.

There’s a large number of people who haven’t tried cannabis but they intend to

David Klein, CEO of Canopy Growth Corporations

So it came as quite a surprise when I visited my parents a few months after they attended the expo and saw the assortment of hemp and CBD samples spread throughout their house:hemp gummies, protein bars and chips, and CBD oils, creams and bath bombs. 

“This one we sell in store now,” my mother shows me a hemp oil tincture from Veritas Farms. I listen to her rave about how beneficial CBD and hemp are. I chuckle at my mother trying to convince me about the positives of cannabis. 

As someone who has been swooped up by the wellness movement, she’s cognizant of all the fads, and CBD and hemp have become the latest one. As a brain-washed consumer in the hyper-materialistic society, she follows trends but then goes a step further  — buying hemp shampoos, skincare and clothing. As my father works in business, he recognizes the growing market trend and surge of cannabis companies which means it was the perfect time to invest in stocks.

While talking to my parents, it became apparent how they were on two ends of the consumerist feedback loop. One end: a portion of the consumer base demands marijuana products. The other end: companies and entrepreneurs see the opportunity to profit. Not only do they invest and provide the supply, but they innovate and create more merchandise. For the clients who don’t care to smoke, companies still have you covered. They produce edibles, tinctures, capsules, patches, topical solutions, beverages and cosmetics. They convince consumers they need to add hemp or CBD to their lifestyles—that it’s the missing piece to your life and can make you a better, healthier and more beautiful person. 

David Klein, the CEO of Canopy Growth Corporations, explained to Mad Money’s Jim Cramer how, “there’s a large number of people who haven’t tried cannabis but they intend to […] those people are not going to enter the category by smoking, so we need to give them another reason to enter the category.”

Dad Won’t Smoke Weed, He Eats It Though

A year after the expo, I abruptly moved back to my parent’s home in New York due to coronavirus. On the first night back from Scotland, where I was finishing up my final year of college, I suddenly hear my father gasping for air, having a panic attack. 

I run to his bedroom and see him sitting upright, trying to stabilize his breath. The CBD he took for his anxiety didn’t seem to be working (granted, it wasn’t medically prescribed to him). Considering how marijuana has helped with my insomnia and anxiety, I timidly ask if he’d be willing to try THC. He cautiously welcomes the idea as long as he doesn’t have to smoke it. 

The following Sunday, I purchase a tincture for my father, afraid he’d abuse gummies or chocolates (he has a terrible sweet tooth). 

He takes some before going to bed. There were no panicked noises that night. 

“I don’t know if it work because I went to sleep after eating,” he explains. 

Nevertheless, I take it as a success, before reminding him to consume some every night.

I’m No Doctor, but Neither is Walmart

Although much can be scrutinized with corporations playing an active role in marijuana legalization, their contribution to the shift of societal perspectives is paramount. Without cannabis corporations spending money on advertisements, funding research and making marijuana more accessible, my parents would still be antagonists of weed. Furthermore, the medical use of marijuana wouldn’t be as widely available to those who prefer cannabis over benzodiazepines or opioids. 

“It works, [Xanax],” my father says, “I fall asleep so fast, but I don’t want to be too addicted because a lot of side effects.”

However, my parents’ change of perspective isn’t merely a result of awareness of the plant’s medical qualities or profitability. It’s also a result of acculturation. As immigrants who have lived in the US for more than 20 years, they’ve gradually adapted and internalized the “American way,” and as the US has become more weed-friendly, so have they. 

It wasn’t until my father received his US citizenship and voted for the first time in 2020 when he was actively paying attention to politics.

“Biden win so I think the marijuana stock go up a lot. He said he will legalize marijuana so I think it go up a lot,” he says.  

I correct my father and explain how Biden is planning to decriminalize marijuana, not legalize it.

“New Jersey legalize and New York soon,” he interrupts, “too much competition with New Jersey. New York has no choice!” 

He lets out a clownish laugh, then says with a serious tone, ”I’m thinking keep Cronos for another year. I think it go up more.”

“Can I grow sa hemp-u then?” my mother chimes in. “Can you buy sa seed and we can grow. I want to make a farm and make a clothes and cars.”

I don’t know about that

the author’s father

I excitedly bring up how Oregon plans to decriminalize the possession of all drugs. 

My parents look at me with reluctance.

“That’s so dangerous, what happen then,” my mother speculates. 

“I don’t know about that,” my father replies. 

I suppose I’ll have to wait another decade, minimum, for my parents to open up to this idea. Ample time for the corporations to produce the next, innovative drug products. Plenty of time to buy politicians to reform drug laws to their liking. Enough time to change the public’s view about why they should incorporate drugs into their daily diet and how they must buy their products to become a better, healthier and more beautiful person. 

Heroin supplements, anyone? Or perhaps, cocaine-infused 5-hour energy drinks? Or at least more research into all these substances already being consumed by people like my parents? 

Hopefully it won’t be long until my mother shows me an LSD tincture and tries to convince me to consume some.

Ilsy Jeon

Ilsy Jeon is a writer and artist based in New York. She received a BFA in Sculpture and Environmental Art from the Glasgow School of Art and was previously a contributing writer at Artefuse.

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