DEALING WITH WEED
While authorities say it's not as popular as amphetamines, ecstasy or
even heroin, marijuana is finding its share of users among Taiwanese
and even spawning a cottage industry
Taipei's Shilin night market is known for stocking just about every
item you'd ever need. But now there is a line of products on offer
that few Taiwanese have ever needed before: bongs and pipes and
widgets and wallets emblazoned with bright green pot leaves. The place
where they're being sold is turning more than a few curious heads and
-- more to the point -- its owner is turning a handsome profit.
"This stuff is becoming more accepted," said A-Xiang, a lanky
20-something whose multi-colored hair and tattooed skin mark him as
the man selling the merchandise.
"I don't think anyone could have sold these items even a few years
ago. But attitudes are changing."
Indeed. Within a span of 20 minutes, A-Xiang is visited by a dozen
young passersby who seem to know exactly what they want.
"Do you have one of those pipes that looks like a credit card?" asks a
girl who doesn't look old enough to use a credit card, let alone a
"Sold out," A-Xiang says.
"How much for screens?" one young man wants to know.
A-Xiang hands him a free package of five.
A "Hi-Liter' with a difference. The end pulls out to reveal a
A more curious exchange comes from a customer of few words. "Hey," the
man says, coyly nodding at A-Xiang.
Without a word, A-Xiang hands him a pack of rolling papers and is
handed exact change. Deal done. The man nods again and saunters away.
A-Xiang adds NT$80 to a till that averages NT$80,000 in monthly profits.
Attitudes are changing -- at least A-Xiang's booming business is
evidence of as much -- but laws are not. Marijuana use is listed as a
Schedule 2 narcotic, in the same league as codeine, ecstasy (or MDMA)
and LSD and is punishable by no less than seven years in prison,
according to the Statue for Narcotics Hazard Control.
A-Xiang's case is a head shop in a box.
His clientele may be growing, but it's A-Xiang's creative use of nouns
that keeps him in business. He claims not to have any trouble with law
enforcement authorities as it's not illegal to sell "tobacco pipes" --
which is what all of A-Xiang's chrome-plated merchandise is meant for,
of course, despite the decorative pot leaf.
"For Tobacco Use Only!"
Still, like most street-side salesmen, he keeps all his products in a
large case that can be moved at a moment's notice. With the help of a
large battery and clip lights, he can set up most anywhere.
A-Xiang, whose name means "flying in circles," can be found most
nights at the same spot in Shilin night market. Other nights he might
set up shop closer to the vendors selling snacks.
"I come here pretty hungry some nights," he said.
He's not likely to incur the wrath of the law. Apart from the Statue
for Narcotics Hazard Control, the Criminal Code for the Republic of
China makes no mention of marijuana in its "Chapter 20, Offenses
Related to the Use of Opium," the only section in the ROC Civil Code
to address illicit drugs. It lists cocaine, heroin and amphetamines in
addition to its namesake, but stops short of proscribing punishment
for the sale or possession of paraphernalia, including "tobacco pipes."
Rather, the scourge of law enforcement authorities in the past decade
has been amphetamines and heroin. More recently, ketamine and ecstasy
have become the drugs found frequently by police in raids on
nightclubs. Marijuana has been barely a blip on the radar -- until
recently, that is.
There were 8,500kg of illicit drugs seized in Taiwan last year,
according to the Department of Health's Director-General, Li Jih-heng,
nearly three times the amount grabbed in 2002. Of that, nearly half
was amphetamines, followed by ketamine, heroin, ecstasy then
marijuana. Last year marked the first time the amount of ketamine
seized surpassed that of heroin. While weighing in far lighter, the
121kg of marijuana seized last year marked a 10-fold increase from the
11kg seized the previous year, perhaps the biggest indicator of the
drug's surging popularity.
"I don't believe the statistics," said one senior police officer who
asked not to be identified. "Just because those are the drugs that
were confiscated, doesn't mean those are the most commonly used
drugs." He illustrated his point by saying another statistic shows
that the most commonly violated traffic law among scooter drivers is
an illegal left turn.
"Traffic officers know exactly where people make illegal left turns
and they wait for them to make it. If you spend all year waiting for
people to make illegal left turns, of course your statistics will show
that left-turns are the most common traffic violation."
Authorities believe that amphetamines, ketamine and ecstasy are the
nation' s biggest problem drugs, he said, exactly because police
frequently crack down on nightclubs, where the use of such drugs is
In his opinion, is marijuana as big a problem as the more commonly
"All drugs are a problem," he said. "But if you're asking which is the
biggest problem, it's alcohol."
Even with it's newfound popularity, marijuana use in Taiwan remains
far below the global average. The United Nations' Office on Drugs and
Crime has, since 1999, compiled an annual report titled Global Illicit
Drug Trends. Last year's report listed Taiwan's annual prevalence of
cannabis abuse (as a percentage of the population) at 0.5 percent.
(For opiates, the figure was 0.4 percent and for amphetamines, 1.2
percent, though that figure was from 2000).
Of Taiwan's neighbors, Japan ranked lowest (0.06 percent), and the
Philippines was highest (3.5 percent). Taiwan's rate was far below
China's (2 percent) and nearly the same as Hong Kong (0.6 percent). In
Asia overall, according to the report, 2.17 percent of the population
abuses cannabis, an estimated 55 million users.
By comparison, 9.3 percent of Americans are mad for reefer, 10.6
percent of Britons, and a whopping 15 percent of Australians. Papua
New Guinea topped the global chart with 29.5 percent, though the last
time anyone there bothered checking was 1995.) The full UN report is
available on the Web at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/research.html.
Analysis of Urinalysis
Annual global seizures of cannabis herb and resins rose some 40
percent between 1998 and 2001, the last year for complete statistics.
Almost 5,600 tonnes of cannabis products were seized in 2001, 15 times
the amount of cocaine and more than 100 times the amount of heroin --
a trend opposite that found in Taiwan.
The major shortcoming of most of these statistics in attempting to
gauge cannabis use among a given population is that they look only at
the amount and types of drugs taken off the streets. What remains and
how it's consumed, as the senior police officer suggested, isn't known.
A different set of statistical information was compiled in a survey
jointly conducted by Taiwan's National Bureau of Controlled Drugs and
scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The survey,
titled Use of MDMA and Marijuana Among Arrestees in Taiwan, compiled
the results of urine samples taken from people arrested in either
Taipei, Taichung or Kaohsiung between September 2000 and February 2001.
Of the 2,944 samples, 11 people tested positive for cannabis use (0.37
percent) and 34 people (1.15 percent) screened positive for ecstasy.
An alarming 1,815 people (61.7 percent) tested positive for use of
Here again, the samples were taken from people in nightclubs, where
the use of marijuana is not particularly rampant.
"I think most people who like to smoke marijuana stay home and sleep,"
the senior police officer said. "But we've been finding a lot more of
it and so we'll be looking for it a lot more."
But where marijuana is now seen as a problem, it was once considered a
solution. Kuo Chou-mei is a Chinese herbal pharmacist whose store on
Minsheng West Road has been open since 1946. While marijuana isn't
included among the 2,000-odd plants and minerals that Kuo keeps in
stock, he says that it is nonetheless part of the traditional Chinese
pharmacopoeia. The seeds of the plant were ground up to become a mild
laxative for the elderly and the leaves were used as an early
"Yes, attitudes towards marijuana have changed," Kuo said. "And they
will continue to change. What's important is that young people realize
that it is strong medicine."
While it's medicine for Kuo, for A-Xiang, marijuana is merchandise. He
says his most popular items aren't pipes and bongs but the many
pendants, pins and purses hanging in his case. He suspects this is
partly because they're less expensive than the pipes, but also because
the leaf signifies a rebelliousness that many young people are embracing.
"It's cool," he says simply.
He wraps up one such pendant for a young woman and includes his
business card in the bag. Like his merchandise, it carries a glossy
green pot leaf and the words, "Is Marijuana Really So Bad For Me?"
It's a question many Taiwanese are asking.