Group helps cannabis smokers “come out” to their Asian parents

It’s one of those questions marijuana smokers pose to one another, usually asked in confidence if the relationship is solid enough, and typically asked more seriously than the regular slew of silly questions one throws out there when you’re in a group of giggly friends:

Have you ever told your parents you smoke pot? 

I remember I was 17 years old when I first admitted, not disclosed, that I smoked marijuana to my parents. I was new to the entire experience, as I had recently begun to hang with more seasoned stoners my senior year of High School.

I came home one night after school noticeably absent-minded, eyes red and crystalline. I had gotten high as a bird and there was no hiding it. So when my mom asked me if I had smoked pot that evening, I was so stoned I kind of just agreed with her.

But that’s the thing. After her initial heartbreak and disappointment we never really discussed my pot smoking again. We still don’t, and I’m in my late 30’s (although my mom will make sly, knowing comments about how my “eyes look funny” from time to time).

It’s quite common for many kids of color (KOCs), particularly Latino and Asian kids and no matter the age– to never disclose to their parents their weed smoking habits. If the subject is broached, it’s rarely if ever spoken to again. The stigma regarding drug use among folks of color is varied, as cultural attitudes about drugs are influenced by a myriad of other factors, like religion, family traditions, and one’s own cultural norms for example.

“My mom kinda knows,” says Mayra Lopez, 26, of Oakland, CA., “But not really. If I came out and told her she would call me a drug addict”.

Mayra’s case isn’t unique. My own mother hints at me being a reckless drug addict as well. Among many communities of color, all illegal drugs are hard drugs, and therefore taboo. We must also acknowledge the very real damage drugs have done. Crack had a devastating effect on African-Americans and Latinos in the 1980’s and 90’s. Many would posit that its effects can be felt to this day. The Chinese-American community experienced a similar epidemic in the early 1900’s, when Opium addiction along the West Coast (and particularly in San Francisco) left entire generations in squalor.

I imagine then it was just as hard for Chinese-American Tiffany Wu to tell her conservative, first-generation Chinese parents she was quitting her high-paying job at a Silicon Valley law firm. It was more than likely even harder for the Harvard Law School grad to tell them that she was quitting so she could advise clients in the cannabis industry — an industry she also participates in regularly.

No surprise then her childhood friend, Monica Lo, who’s a creative director at a San Francisco startup met the same horrified response when she came out of what she affectionately refers to as the “Green Closet” to her first generation Chinese parents earlier this year.

“They were so worried,” Lo said. “They asked me, ‘Are you on drugs? Are you a drug dealer? What are people going to think of us? What are they going to think of our family when you are so open about this?’”

Tiffany Wu wears a necklace of a marijuana leaf that she purchased online, at Etsy, in San Francisco, California on Friday, November 6, 2015. Tiffany Wu and her roommate childhood friend Monica Lo (not pictured) formed an organization called AsianAmericans for Cannabis, to help build support among the Asian community to support legalization. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Special To The Chronicle
Tiffany Wu wears a necklace of a marijuana leaf that she purchased online, at Etsy, in San Francisco, California on Friday, November 6, 2015. Tiffany Wu and her roommate childhood friend Monica Lo (not pictured) formed an organization called AsianAmericans for Cannabis, to help build support among the Asian community to support legalization. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Special To The Chronicle

Both women were featured recently in an article in the San Francisco chronicle photographed in the act of smoking a joint–so if their family didn’t know about their marijuana use before they definitely know now.  Wu and Lo co-founded Asian Americans for Cannabis Educationalong with Los Angeles photographer Ophelia Chong. The organization seeks to change what has been seen by some as a deep-rooted cultural resistance among Asians to view cannabis more as a plant that, as well as recreational use, provides health benefits–a stark contrast to its reputation as a hardcore street drug.

Monica Lo (right) smells "Bruce Banner" cannabis with friend and roommate Tiffany Wu (left), at their local dispensary on Post Street in San Francisco, California on Friday, November 6, 2015. The duo are childhood friends who formed an organization called AsianAmericans for Cannabis to build support among the Asian community to support legalization. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Special To The Chronicle
Monica Lo (right) smells “Bruce Banner” cannabis with friend and roommate Tiffany Wu (left), at their local dispensary on Post Street in San Francisco, California on Friday, November 6, 2015. The duo are childhood friends who formed an organization called AsianAmericans for Cannabis to build support among the Asian community to support legalization. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Special To The Chronicle

“In Asian culture, what you do reflects on your family,” says Wu, who notes that positive role models of successful marijuana users are in short supply in the Asian community. “We practice what we preach. We both went to good schools, got good jobs, and we’re pretty successful.”

In the same breath, Wu mentions the backlash many second-generation Asian kids may experience when they decide to branch out on their own, be in with cannabis or not.

” I have friends in college who dropped out of premed and they didn’t tell their parents for years,” Wu said and laughed. “Choosing not to be a doctor was bad enough without saying that you smoke cannabis.”

Some influential Asian-Americans such as Comedian Margaret Cho have stepped forth and publicly proclaimed their love for the herb. The comedian was featured earlier this year in an article for Asian Americans for Cannabis Education.

When asked by the site “Which was harder to tell your parents, that you smoke cannabis or that you are bisexual?” Cho’s response was telling.

“They still don’t understand either,” Cho replied. “When I try to explain, that is when they pretend they have a limited grasp on the English language. I keep trying though!”

While there is little polling data into Asian American attitudes toward cannabis, what little research has been conducted point to a generational divide that is greater among Asians than other demographic groups, except for Latinos. Between African-Americans and Whites, there is greater support for marijuana legalization among whites, which could be due in part to the staggering rates African-Americans have been incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes.

Similarly, winning over first-generation Asian Americans affected by the stigma of the Opium scourge of the 1900’s (a demographic that remains important, although not key to legalizing marijuana in California next year), will likely be a difficult feat.

“Asian culture is a very law-abiding community — public safety is very important,” said California controller Betty Yee, one of the state’s highest-ranking Asian American officials and the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

“I know for a lot of parents the mind-set is what a lot of parents had back at the start of the drug revolution — that marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Yee, 58, an outspoken supporter of cannabis who grew up in San Francisco. “There’s a lot of pressure, on Chinese American youth in particular, to excel.”

Ironically Lee never had a “coming out” conversation with her own family.

“They probably assumed that I did,” she said and laughed. “I was the black sheep of the family.”

And while it may be true that San Francisco has issued more Medical Marijuana ID’s than any other city in the state for the past six years, the Sunset District, the cities Asian American enclave has held the industry at bay just as long.

There, residents have repeatedly coalesced to block several attempts to open medical marijuana dispensaries over the past two decades that medicinal herb has been quasi-legal in California. Sunset District activists lobbied City Hall to require dispensaries to obtain a conditional use permit — a considerably tougher hurdle to clear — before opening in the community’s business districts. Other neighborhoods don’t have such a strict requirement.

However, Yee thinks the reformational medical marijuana laws that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last month “gives us an in” to talk to older Asian Americans about cannabis, particularly medical marijuana.

During a recent visit to the Apothecarium, a medical cannabis dispensary in the Castro, Yee made a call for unity.  Her plan: bringing together the Chinese herbal medicine practitioners, medical cannabis experts, western medicine workers and other healers for “a community health summit” in San Francisco.

“One of the ways to neutralize this concern is to show (cannabis) as part of this whole continuum of health options,” Yee said. “And especially now that we are building this regulatory framework (for medical cannabis), we would be letting the Chinese community know that the government is behind this thing so you shouldn’t be afraid to think that there would be huge safety concerns or that your kids will be (messed) up by cannabis.”

When Wu told her father about her own pot-smoking, he was worried that she would overdose or turn to harder drugs. Similarly, my mother thought I would get hooked on harder drugs, which, sadly, I did. They were called High Fructose Corn Syrups.

And my mom,” Lo said and smiled, “we don’t talk about it so much.”

Petey Wheatstraw

My name is Petey Wheatstraw, also known as Charles Stevens. I'm an avid marijuana smoker, writer, devoted father and non-profit minion-- not necessarily in that order. A Chicago native I've lived off and on in the Bay Area since 1996. Seven years ago I finally settled here to capture the changing face of our communities. Click Here for Free Cannabis