Hundreds of students at the University of British Columbia celebrated the first day of cannabis legalization by lighting up outside the student union building on Oct. 17.
But instead of taking a puff, many Asian students kept their distance from the cloud of smoke due to the fear of severe punishments in their home countries.
“My mother would be pretty worried if she knew I was here to observe,” said Juan Leblanc, a Filipino undergraduate. “It’s really dangerous to consume cannabis back in my home country.” Cannabis has been illegal in the Philippines since 1972. Its medical use was legalized in March 2017.
Canada is only the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalize cannabis at the national level. Legalization poses questions for international students with some embassies warning their citizens they could be punished for consuming cannabis in Canada.
The situation is especially acute for students from Asia, where cannabis use is less socially acceptable than in North America.
“Japanese hold a quite conservative attitude to cannabis,” said Makoto Tonoki, an exchange student from Tokyo studying economics. “When I was a kid, my parents and teachers taught me marijuana is a drug and you can either give up drugs or your life. But when I went to boarding school in the United States, my classmates talked about and smoked cannabis all the time.”
The Japanese consulate in Vancouver sent an email to all Japanese students, warning that they could still be punished by Japanese law for possessing cannabis in Canada. The maximum sentence is five years.
In China, cannabis is categorized in the same class of narcotic drugs as heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Chinese students are still subject to Chinese law while studying in Canada, meaning they could be sentenced upon their return.
Jie Cheng, a professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, said that the Chinese government is within its authority to apply its own laws to Chinese citizens even if they are overseas. It might be difficult for governments to prove their citizens have actually consumed cannabis, however.
“It’s still not easy to collect decisive evidence accusing people of consuming cannabis even using people’s purchase history,” said Cheng.
“My advice to international students: don’t panic, obey the laws of both Canada and your home country, and never bring cannabis outside Canada”.