On a chilly evening in March, around 50 angry protesters gathered in a cramped in room in San Francisco’s Taraval Police Station. Dr. Floyd Huen was there to talk to business owners and other community members about a cannabis dispensary he planned to open in their neighborhood. But as he began to speak, the protesters interjected.
“You are poisoning our young people!” one cried. Their shouting got so loud that Huen had no choice but to leave, barely uttering a word.
Most of the protesters were residents of the heavily Chinese American Sunset District, the future location of the dispensary—the Apothecarium Sunset—approved by the San Francisco Planning Commission in July and expected to open next year. Residents had blocked earlier attempts to open dispensaries in the neighborhood; as of mid-July, the city had around 40 permitted dispensaries, none of them in the Sunset District, according to The San Francisco Examiner.
The location is no coincidence; despite the legalization of recreational use in California last November, cannabis remains heavily stigmatized among Asian Americans. In a 2016 UC-Berkeley poll of California voters, 64% of respondents supported legalization—but only 58% percent of Asian Americans did, the lowest of all racial groups polled.
But 70-year-old Huen, a medical advisor for the Apothecarium patient collective, says these attitudes unjustly block Asian Americans from the medical benefits of cannabis. Sunset District residents who do use cannabis, including many of Huen’s Chinese-speaking patients, have to travel far to access dispensaries, which are English-only.
“I define it as a civil rights issue if the Chinese community in particular continues to obstruct and be unfriendly to all options open to our patients,” he says.
He and other activists are on a mission to shatter that stigma. Huen plans to do so largely through the Apothecarium Sunset, which he would co-own with his wife, former Oakland mayor Jean Quan. The dispensary would be San Francisco’s first partially Chinese-owned and bilingual dispensary. It would offer services in Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as partner with traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and Chinese American physicians, and host community workshops on acupuncture, including how to use it with cannabis for chronic pain. Traditional practitioners could also hold office hours at the dispensary.
Huen even envisions physicians collaborating with traditional practitioners to develop treatment plans for patients they have in common. He hopes that seeing a dispensary staffed with people who share their language and culture, and a Chinese American doctor “as opposed to a white hippie doctor,” serving patients who look like everyday folks rather than what residents might think of as the “pothead” stereotype, will dispel their fears.
Huen and I meet in the cushy, chandeliered waiting area of the Apothecarium’s Castro District dispensary. He has kind eyes, side-swept hair, and a mustache. Serious and soft-spoken, he recalls his young activist days at UC-Berkeley, where he was arrested at a protest in 1969. As a doctor, he advocated for healthcare access, turning his focus to cannabis in the 1990s after he saw it increase appetite and lower pain in his AIDS patients.
Ironically, cannabis had been used in Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years—until Britain and other Western countries began heavily exporting opium to China in the 18th century, causing widespread addiction that devastated the Chinese empire. After the Communist Party took control in 1949, China’s opium fields were destroyed and addicts sentenced to mandatory rehabilitation. Today, China and several other Asian countries take a hardline anti-drug stance.
This history might explain what Huen characterizes as pervasive ignorance about marijuana in recent immigrant communities. He says Asian American seniors don’t realize that a compound in cannabis known as cannabidiol, or CBD, can relieve pain without getting them high. As a result, many rely on highly addictive opiates or dangerously high doses of over-the-counter drugs for chronic pain. (Huen’s own aunt-in-law died after taking high doses of Motrin for her arthritis.)
Many recent immigrants and Asian Americans who stay within their communities see cannabis as going against the cultural values of obedience and self-restraint. “Drugs are something we really would not tolerate openly in our community, in the same way you’re not supposed to have bad grades,” says Crystal Lu of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association, who advocated against legalization in California.
It’s part of a narrative Asian Americans often hear growing up, 57-year-old cannabis activist Ophelia Chong says. “You have to stay in the lines,” or “you’ll bring shame to the family.”
Chong, a Los Angeles-based creative director with red lipstick and a quirky, outspoken personality, traces her foray into cannabis activism to her sister, who has an autoimmune disease and wanted to try cannabis for pain relief while visiting from China in 2015. They drove to a dispensary and bought a weed cookie. Chong’s sister ate too much.
“Whoa, that’s a stoner,” Chong thought as she watched her sister ride out a bad trip. Immediately, she felt guilty for stereotyping her. “It upset me that people would see her like this.” A stock photography industry veteran, she searched online for images of cannabis users. But that only turned up more stereotypes: the white stoner dude, ripping a bong on the sofa; the scary black drug dealer. “I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to change the conversation.’”
Soon after, Chong launched StockPot Images, a stock photo agency for weed. The two-year-old company licenses more than 20,000 photos of a diversity of cannabis users—including Asians—to show that they fall into more than a handful of offensive stereotypes. One photo series, for instance, features a 90-year-old Chinese grandmother huddled next to her grandson, helping him tend his cannabis plants. “It’s one of the most loving images I’ve ever seen,” Chong says.
A few months after starting StockPot, Chong co-founded Asian Americans for Cannabis Education (AACE), an organization that also aims to smash cannabis stereotypes, especially in the Asian American community. She profiles a different Asian American cannabis entrepreneur on AACE’s website every week—like Anh Solis, a dispensary owner and mother. “We just want to show people that we’re parents, we’re normal, we’re just like everybody else,” Chong says.
She’s optimistic that the younger generation will help their elders come around. So is Huen, who says that as young Asian Americans learn about cannabis’ health benefits, they are persuading older relatives to give it a shot. “Young people are always leading the way” when it comes to social change, just like he did as a student activist.
Twenty-five-year-old Nick Lau, chair of the Apothecarium Sunset’s community advisory committee, convinced his dad to let him give cannabis to his grandmother, who suffers from lung cancer. She had been taking opiates for pain relief, which made her nauseous and lose her appetite. Now, cannabis alleviates her pain, but without those side effects.
Lau has shared his grandmother’s story with local Chinese and English media outlets. Huen says the Apothecarium Sunset will act as an organizing center, encouraging patients to share stories like these, which he predicts will embolden others to step out of the shadows.
Eventually, Huen believes, “the fear will be overcome.” For now, opponents aren’t ready to let that happen, filing an appeal of the San Francisco Planning Commission’s approval of the dispensary late last month. Huen isn’t fazed. “We’re going to win it,” he says.
Melissa Pandika is an independent journalist whose writing has appeared in Discover, the Los Angeles Times, VICE, OZY and other outlets. She lives in Berkeley, California.