An economic stir is happening in China, but it’s in an industry you might not expect. With more than half of the 600 relevant patents filed with the World Intellectual Property Office now owned by Chinese companies, the country is well positioned to dominate the global cannabis market. Which is very surprising for a nation where drug trafficking is still punishable by death and mere possession of the substance can result in a lengthy spell behind bars.
Chinese investment in the cannabis market could not be more perfectly timed, as countries like the U.S. and Uruguay begin to experiment with decriminalization. Medical marijuana research has surged over the last decade as medicine and finance have coalesced to legitimize the business of cannabis. The fervor for the war on drugs that has for decades driven the policies and public opinion on marijuana decriminalization is slowly fading. In the U.S., where cannabis is nowlegal in four states, the rhetoric is moving away from issues like crime and security, to more progressive discussions on race, mass incarceration, and personal freedom.
Meanwhile, there is another emerging dimension: Western medicine is beginning to take more seriously the tradition and techniques of alternative medicine popularized by China. Part of this tradition is cannabis, which has been used to treat illnesses ranging from depression to constipation.
China is uniquely poised to take advantage of cannabis production because of its strong patent control and the fact that its production of pharmaceuticals is surpassing the West. As Dr. Luc Dechesne states: “Because cannabis in Western medicine is becoming accepted, the predominance of Chinese patents suggests that pharmaceutical sciences are evolving quickly in China, outpacing Western capabilities.” China is already one of the leading exporters of hemp and is well positioned to benefit from any future boom in cannabis.
Except for one significant obstacle: The current administration of President Xi Jinping shows no sign of relenting on its anti-corruption crusade, which encompasses social ills such as prostitution and drug use. Xi has been dogged in his attempt to shore up his image as a no-nonsense law-and-order leader. He has doubled down in recent months, ordering police to conduct widespread and high-profile crackdowns. The latest casualties in his war on drugs even include the arrests and blacklisting of celebrities like Ko Chen-tung and Fang Zuming (better known as Jackie Chan’s son), whose legal troubles have only brought more attention to the issue.
In fact, one need not have more than a cursory understanding of China’s history to find a reason for its reflexive rejection of progressive drug policy. The idea of others, or more specifically the West, peddling the medicinal benefits and economic opportunities of cannabis recalls an unsettling time in Chinese history: the mid-19th century Opium Wars between China and the U.K. The Chinese government responded with the traditional approach to drug control: criminalization, surveillance, and punishment.
Still politics often follows the money, and there is a real market in China for the production of medical marijuana. Don’t expect to see marijuana dispensaries hitting the streets of Beijing anytime soon; China still has a strong institutional revulsion against drug liberalization and it is likely to continue its relentless war on drugs. However, it will need at some point to reconcile its history with the fact that it is very well placed to be a major player in a growing market.
Hayato Watanabe is a freelance political writer and currently works at a legal-non-profit in New York City.