Taipei, Taiwan – Joyce Wu was always curious about cannabis.
Wu tried it a few times in Taiwan, where she grew up, but did not like the effects and the added anxiety around using it illegally made the experience less enjoyable. It was only after she came to the United States in 2015 that she felt safe enough to experiment and discovered the relaxing effects that cannabis can have.
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In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world in uncertainty, Wu found that cannabis was the only thing that helped ease her nerves. She wanted to share its benefits with her friends and family in Taiwan.
“I was reading a lot of news and I wondered if my friends and family in Taiwan will be in the same situation as me,” Wu told Al Jazeera. “I was super anxious. And I wanted to help them and show them that something herbal – not like a medicine – can help them reduce their anxiety.”
In June of that year, Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare released guidance clarifying that cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in the cannabis plant, is legal in Taiwan for medical and personal use – as long as it contains no more than 10 parts per million (0.001 percent) of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives cannabis users a high.
The caveat: CBD is classified as a pharmaceutical drug in Taiwan, meaning it can only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription. Since there are no domestic pharmaceutical companies that sell CBD products, consumers must buy them abroad or apply to import CBD products from other countries.
Within that grey area, Wu saw an opportunity to start a small CBD business, WeHemppy, from her home in New York to cater to Taiwanese consumers. She spent months researching CBD brands and lab-testing products to ensure they did not exceed Taiwan’s THC limit, which is several times lower than the US standard.
“I thought it was a good idea at the time because no one was talking about CBD,” Wu said. “It’s also our job to educate people that it’s safe and it won’t make you dizzy or high. So on our website and social media, we try to create a vibe that’s more like a cosmetic.”
Wu’s business is part of a small but growing industry that caters to Taiwanese demand for CBD, operated from overseas bases in countries including the United Kingdom, the US, Thailand and Japan.
While Taiwan positions itself as one of the most progressive places in Asia on issues such as LGBTQ rights, it remains staunchly conservative on cannabis, even as other parts of the region begin to slowly loosen restrictions.
Cannabis is listed as a Category 2 narcotic alongside coca, amphetamines, and certain opioids.
Under Taiwan’s Narcotics Hazard Prevention Act, those found guilty of using cannabis face a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Possession with intention to sell carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to 5 million New Taiwan dollars ($164,000).
In recent years, the island has doubled down on its anti-drugs stance. In 2021, Department of Protection Bureau Chief Wu Yi-Ming said Taiwan “must declare war on marijuana”. In March, authorities carried out their largest-ever marijuana bust in Taoyuan, confiscating more than 4,000 plants with a market value of 1.26 billion New Taiwan dollars ($41m).
Still, some Taiwanese are calling for change. Taipei’s annual cannabis decriminalisation rally on Saturday drew thousands of supporters – one of the bigger turnouts in the event’s history. Some vendors advertised CBD products available for purchase from e-commerce businesses based in the US and Thailand.
At least 100 officers patrolled the event area and filmed protesters as they marched towards Taiwan’s legislature, chanting “Decriminalise marijuana!” and “End discrimination!”.
In response to the event, the island’s Ministry of Justice reiterated that it “firmly opposes marijuana decriminalisation”. The government will “do everything possible to suppress the spread of any drug, and work with the public to maintain a drug-free home”, the ministry said in a statement.
Taiwan’s government maintains a stance in line with the United Nations that argues cannabis use can cause mental and physical health conditions – even though many countries and US states in recent years have loosened restrictions based on research asserting its safety for medical use.
Advocates say Taiwan has had no reason to make changes to the law because it remains a minor issue among the general public.
Politicians “need traditional support,” Zoe Lee, a Taipei lawyer who deals with cannabis cases and advocates for legalisation, told Al Jazeera. “The topic is way too hardcore, too progressive that their voters cannot accept it.”
Through local advocacy and her podcast In The Weeds, Lee has been working to bring cannabis into the public eye. She also chairs Taiwan’s Green Party and in 2020 ran for the Legislative Yuan, as well as for the city council in 2022, making cannabis reform a focus of her campaign.
Both runs were unsuccessful, although she says they were primarily intended to raise awareness of the issue.
Taiwan’s conservative attitudes towards drugs can be traced to the classroom. From a young age, Taiwanese are taught about marijuana in school as a gateway drug that can easily lead to harder drug habits and violent crime.
“A lot of fear comes from a lack of knowledge of these substances,” Lai Yanhe, a doctor and marijuana advocate living in Kaohsiung, told Al Jazeera.
“For a common Taiwanese, if you ask them about marijuana, they will relate to it as a dupin… the word ‘du’ is poison, so it’s a substance of poison. Whereas in English, a drug or substance has more of a neutral meaning.”
Lai has been gathering signatures for a petition in support of the legalisation of medical cannabis, calling on other doctors to show their support. It has received just 83 signatures so far, a drop in the bucket compared with the thousands of doctors in Taiwan.
Showing public support for such an issue – especially in a large hospital – could be damaging to a doctor’s reputation, Lai said.
Barriers to legal products like CBD only add to the stigma. Lee and Wu recommend that Taiwanese buyers have the proper paperwork – a doctor’s prescription and approved import application – before trying to import products to the island.
The other option is taking a risk and hoping a package will not be inspected by authorities.
“I highly recommend people get a prescription from doctors. But I know it’s not practical because it’s very hard for Taiwanese doctors to understand CBD at this time,” Wu said. “99 percent of doctors don’t know what CBD is.”
As for the import form, Wu said about 90 percent of her customers’ applications are rejected if they do not have a prescription.
Taiwan’s Customs Administration told Al Jazeera that it approved “more than 100” import applications last year, but it doesn’t keep track of the number of unsuccessful applications.
Lee, the lawyer, said one of her clients tried to import a CBD product from a foreign company that falsely claimed the product was THC-free. The product was seized at customs and the client is now facing 10 years in prison for drug trafficking.
Lee said there is no “winning” in these cases, only the best possible outcome – which means pleading guilty to get a reduced sentence.
“We need to really change this as soon as possible. So that’s partially why I’m jumping into the election next year,” she said.
In Japan, Lull Kyoto in 2021 became the first CBD café to open in the city of Kyoto, joining a growing number of stores and coffee shops emerging in the country.
The sale and use of cannabis flower buds and leaves remain strictly prohibited in Japan, and like in Taiwan, punishment is strict. But thanks to a legal loophole, CBD is legal for consumption and import – as long as it is free of THC.
As CBD has become more popular, Japan’s industry has blown up: analysts estimate legal cannabis products could be worth $800m by 2024.
Japan’s low THC tolerance has also made it a convenient place from which Taiwanese can order CBD online or buy it while visiting the country.
“I think Taiwanese people are definitely interested because they’re coming to Japan to try it. It’s a loss for Taiwanese small business owners who might want to jump into the market,” Jon Nakamichi, the co-owner of Lull Kyoto, told Al Jazeera.
“In the bigger picture of Asia, having CBD be legal – if not available for purchase in Taiwan – is still a lot freer than other Asian and Southeast Asian countries.”
CBD remains a controlled drug in Singapore, while Hong Kong recently criminalised it, gutting a thriving and established industry there.
But the view from Taiwan is less optimistic. Lee, the lawyer, said recent changes in the region indicate Taiwan may be falling behind its neighbours. In Japan as well as Malaysia – where recreational cannabis laws remain strict – legislators, doctors and advocates anticipate that the legislation of medical cannabis could be on the cards in the near future.
In 2018, South Korea became the first country in Asia to legalise cannabis for medical use. Last year, Thailand decriminalised cannabis altogether.
Lai, the doctor and decriminalisation advocate, said the Taiwanese government likely will not change its attitude on cannabis unless the US federally legalises it for medical or recreational use.
But as more Taiwanese try cannabis in Taiwan or CBD in Japan, the stigma around it may begin to slowly fade, Lee said.
“Before, you had to get a flight all the way to Europe to the US to have a chance to try it,” Lee said.
Now, she sees more tolerant attitudes in discussions taking place on internet forums like PTT, a Reddit-like platform in Taiwan.
“People [on a Thailand travel PTT page] have started talking about cannabis casually,” Lee said. “They don’t treat it as an evil substance any more.”