One hears about China’s legendarily harsh anti-drug laws, but is it really so awful to try to get high in China? Paradoxically, in a country with some of the tightest drug laws in the world, hashish and marijuana can be bought and sold on the streets of a megalopolis like Shanghai and dirt-road villages alike, usually with only slight concern for legal repercussions. Cultural eccentricities aside, buying cannabis in China is a largely familiar and comfortable scene to anyone who’s had to buy illegally elsewhere.
Buying on the Street, Just Like Back Home
Foreigners walking down the popular pedestrian shopping mall Nanjing Dong Lu (南京东路) in Shanghai are half-accosted by Uyghurs and other “laowai” (foreigners) trying to make a quick buck: “Hats, coats, hashish?” A quick stop to buy a kebab from a roadside stand, and the man at the grill offers you hash. Dealers are often more brazen than buyers, so one might take a bit of precaution before making a transaction.
In a nation whose ideal is having more closed circuit cameras than George Orwell could have ever imagined, it’s wise to head for an un-filmed spot before exchanging cash for goods. Don’t be too disappointed, too, when your dealer, trying to avoid police scrutiny, pulls hash out from his underwear hiding spot.
While there are language barriers, complex conversations are not necessary when the range of goods on offer is limited. Buying marijuana (大麻; “DaMa” in Mandarin Chinese) in China won’t often net you high-grade hydro, so you’ll need to be comfortable with smoking hashish. Since you’re most often buying from Uyghurs, you’ll rarely hear the term “DaMa,” so the terms “hashish,” “hash,” and sometimes a garbled “hashmish” are the nomenclature in use.
Uyghur people are an ethnic minority, apart from the dominant Han, that have embraced marijuana as a resource. That role is a double-edged sword however, as their reliance on selling hashish has earned them a stigma as drug dealers, not unlike certain groups in urban America. For a foreigner looking for hash, though, it is a plus that Uyghurs speak Mandarin Chinese as their second language, too, as you’re in good company.
Just Like Back Home, Only Different
One thing that’s different, however, is how far your cash will stretch. Just like almost everything else in China, smoking hash is a pleasantly affordable hobby. Unlike the $15 per gram most of us pay in America, an ounce of hash goes for under $100 in China. Laowai beware, it’s nice to have a Chinese-looking friend come along for the deal. Just like foreigners suffer from “gringo” prices in Latin America, and obvious outsiders get ripped off in cities across America, laowai should expect specially inflated prices.
A night on the town is much cheaper than in America and often offers more freedom to smoke. Smoking openly on the streets is almost a non-issue, as most people don’t know what marijuana is or how it smells—just don’t exhale directly into a cop’s face. Ironically, in a country with some of the strictest marijuana laws, you will feel as free to toke up as in some of the most progressive states in the U.S. At bars, you’ll find guys posted outside waiting to make discrete deals. Ideally, you’ll find hash and both you and the dealer will avoid police.
Should you get caught, know that Chinese culture is in your favor. In a land where “saving face” is critical, police bureaus don’t often go through with a bust. Unlike in the U.S., publicizing a drug bust would cause the city to “lose face,” a shameful downgrade in reputation. On top of that, dealing with foreigners is complex, and authorities often would like to see the problem go away as much as the culprit. More than likely, you’ll face a situation where you’re forced to bribe your way out of trouble. Rules differ between Chinese and foreigners, however. Sadly, one thing that is similar to the U.S. is that a caught dealer might face several years of prison time.
Legalization another 5,000 years off?
Although buying and smoking in China at times feels more free than in the U.S., an open discussion on legalization is a long way off. After its challenging history with opium, including several wars over it, Chinese culture has embraced the notion that all drugs are equally bad, threaten society, and ruin families. Unfortunately, that belief is bolstered by the growing popularity of methamphetamines. As a result, Chinese society does not even talk about legalizing marijuana, preferring instead to equate all drugs with one another and broadly prohibit all drug use.
For that reason, cultivation of marijuana is often in remote areas. It’s no surprise that a minority group like the Uyghurs, who come from one of the most remote areas of China, shoulder the responsibility for distributing marijuana. Perhaps one day, as the conversation shifts, hashish will spread more evenly across Chinese society.
At present, marijuana culture’s underground status in China carries unintended benefits. While enjoying herb in China, it’s easy to smoke openly. Whether in a bar, a taxi, or at a show, most likely no one is even going to know what you are smoking. While it might be nice if marijuana played a more prominent role in society, perhaps freeing the Uyghur from their pigeon-holed role as the country’s hashish connection, the reality is that enjoying hash in China is a relatively low-key affair, unlikely to achieve national attention in the near future. A mellow, if quirky, transaction, freedom to smoke, and an enjoyable high are all on offer in China.