24 February 2019
Cannabis cultivation has a long tradition in Yunnan. Photo: Yunnan government website
Cannabis cultivation has a long tradition in Yunnan. Photo: Yunnan government website

High times as Yunnan GDP puffs on magic cannabis dragon

In Hong Kong, it threatens a student’s future. In Colorado, it’s a legal retail product. And in Yunnan, it’s an economic high.

Cannabis has ignited debate about drug policy in the city with the arrest of a Hong Kong University student for growing the plant on a residential roof garden “for fun”. If convicted, the student faces a fine of up to HK$100,000 and imprisonment for up to 15 years.

Conservatives have criticized the student for making a dopey move that could cloud his career. Others say Hong Kong’s laws are outdated, especially compared with the US state of Colorado, which legalized retail sales of the weed this year.

But Hong Kong is even further behind the times compared with the mainland province of Yunnan, where cannabis, commonly known as marijuana, is a major contributor to the local economy.

Marijuana has been grown in Yunnan for centuries as a source of food and clothing. In the 1980s as China opened up to the world, many tourists caught wind of the drug and followed its scent to the cities of Dali and Lijiang. That ended in 1990 when China put a stop to the plant’s cultivation to clean up its reputation. 

Before the chop came, 44 percent of the cannabis produced in Yunnan was for recreational drug use and 30 percent was for hemp, according to a Guangxi medical journal. The rest was for other purposes.

The government did encourage farmers to make up the lost income in the 1990s by cultivating non-drug strains but the efforts withered. They were unable to find a suitable substitute for cannabis which offered better yield. It wasn’t until Yunnan duplicated a European low-THC product called industrial hemp in 1997 that the crop took root. THC is the plant’s main intoxicant, and industrial hemp, or so-called non-medical cannabis, can be used to make textile and paper products.

Mass production began in 2001 and over the next decade the industrial hemp sector in Yunnan entered a golden period, Yang Ming, a local agricultural researcher, told Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly magazine in March. Yang said the hemp industry will continue to consolidate and become standardized. 

There are also prospects for the medical marijuana trade. Who knows how much of the cannabis in Yunnan is still grown for drug use but market observers say that as countries in the West legalize the weed, it will also open the door for exports from Yunnan. 

– Contact HKEJ at [email protected]



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