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Being a Stoner in Beijing Is Expensive, Dangerous, and Complicated

A recent government crackdown has made dealers and users nervous, but it hasn't stopped people from getting high in the Chinese capital.

by Tim Hill
Apr 29 2015, 5:00pm

Photo by the author

A few years ago, my neighbor Luke* went to a bonfire party on a mountain just outside of Beijing. Three busloads of revelers came from the capital, he said, amply provisioned with alcohol and cannabis; a few had mushrooms or acid.

But the fun didn't last. "There was a mole," he guessed. On the way back, police stopped the buses at a tollbooth. "They made all the Chinese take their bags and get off the bus. Then they went through everyone's bags, and a bunch of Chinese people got taken off and sent to jail."

The expats escaped punishment, however. "One of the police guys came on the bus to yell at us: 'When you're in China, you should obey Chinese laws!'," Luke recalled. But that was the end of it. "All the foreigners got off scot-free."

He came out luckier than the partiers at 2 Kolegas, a live music bar with a cheap-beer-and-hipsters vibe. One night last August, police suddenly sealed the exits and subjected everyone in the crowd to a surprise drug test. Australian reporter Stephen McDonell, who happened to be present, described the raid in The Drum:

With toilet doors open police watched as we gave samples one by one. Women, too, had to squat with the toilet door open. A police woman would stand in the doorway and partially block the view of those who walked about in front of the stalls.

As soon as a sample was handed over it was held up to the light. In some cases there was a reaction. From where I stood I could not see what this was but those who "failed" the test were taken outside the bar and made to sit on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs - heads down. Some had their mouths taped closed. Policemen stood over them and ordered them not to speak.

The raid on 2 Kolegas was a sobering shock to the THC-infused expat community. Would we now have to actually obey China's strict antidrug laws?

Among those caught up in the latest crackdown was Jackie Chan's son, Jaycee, who was slapped with a six-month jail sentence after getting caught with three ounces of weed. Over the past five months, authorities have arrested 133,000 suspects and seized 43.3 tons of narcotics, the official Xinhua News Service recently reported, and police have punished 606,000 suspects in total during the same period.

Coke and pills are among the local drugs of choice, but the weed scene is muted. Expats buy and sell almost exclusively among themselves; except for a few overseas Chinese men (Taiwan, Hong Kong or those born abroad) and women with foreign boyfriends, I didn't know any mainland Chinese who smoke regularly.

"The [local] stoner community here has to stay closeted," an American acquaintance told me. "It's not like [some states] in the US, where anything up to an ounce and you get, like, a $250 fine. If you have an ounce on you in China you go to a black site prison where they do crazy medical experiments to you and shit."

Still, I couldn't help being curious. Christopher Hitchens once wrote about being offered alcohol at almost every home he visited in Ayatollah-run Iran. Was there a similar underground in China? Chinese people use Facebook and watch porn in spite of nominal government bans. How many Chinese people, I wondered, have secret stashes and heat lamps?

The answer is quite a few. Behind a tight veil of secrecy, there is a small but flourishing circle of mainlanders who grow, trade, smoke, and eat weed.

I asked my closest bud-smoking buds what advice they'd give to a new arrival, and all the foreigners gave the same unanimous recommendation: "Just go to Sanlitun and talk to one of the black guys."

Sanlitun is Beijing's party district, an overpriced purgatory of fake liquor and expensive hangovers. It's the capital's yuppie center, with an Apple Store and a colossal 24-hour Starbucks. When I first arrived in Beijing two years ago, business was brisk and unmolested by the authorities. You couldn't cross Sanlitun without being asked, in the accented tones of the West African community, "Hey man, you good?"

Sanlitun district in Beijing. Photo via Flickr user Lux Moundi

A former colleague buys from one of the African dealers. He's an American, living in the labyrinth of alleys and corridors between the Drum Tower and a famous Tibetan temple, and agreed to be quoted on the singular condition that I call him "Richard Sledge," which is apparently a reference from Archer. I'm going to call him Dick instead.

Dick's dealer "works in an embassy, but selling is his main source of income." (Dick wouldn't tell me which embassy.) Dick thinks that at least part of the reason Africans are the most visible dealers is that with China's strict laws against drug trafficking, diplomatic missions from corrupt countries in Africa are likely among the only reliable ways to bring in commercial quantities.

African dealers, Dick explained, "won't have the best, or second-best, or even fifteenth-best stuff, but it's a start." He wasn't sanguine about the quality, though: "I'm lucky if $50 can get me two grams of halfway decent shit."

African dealers were among the first to get targeted by the new crackdowns. "My guy ran into a snag and won't be selling anytime soon," Dick told me mournfully. Multiple other sources confirmed that the market has gone underground, or at least indoors, in recent months.

The next easiest option, according to Chinese buyers, is the Uyghurs.

Lucy* is a Chinese woman I met last year at Strawberry Festival, a three-day marathon of booze and bands and drugs. She studies accounting and likes to cosplay and read Murakami. "I've only smoked weeds three times," she told me. "My boyfriend was curious, so we tried it together." Many of her friends had tried it as well. When I asked where they got it, she guessed that most students "bought it from the terrorists."

The "terrorists," in this case, are the Uyghurs—a Muslim minority that is said to have used hashish as a medicine for centuries. Her characterization is not uncommon among Han Chinese, many of whom distrust the restive minority.

Other Chinese echoed the sentiment, albeit less bluntly. At a barbecue near 2 Kolegas I met a quiet, occasional smoker who asked me to call him Wang Er.

"I worked in Shanghai for about half a year. Shanghai is not a politically strict city, so I can buy weed there. In Shanghai, lots of Xinjiang people [i.e., Uyghurs] sell marijuana."

I asked if he was worried about getting caught. "In the capital city, it's serious. Fifteen days, half a year or even longer jail time if you are caught selling drugs... But in Shanghai it's not that serious. Some Xinjiangren sell weed outside the clubs, and the police just walk by without caring."

But the Muslim weed is expensive. A joint at a Shanghai club cost Wang 100 yuan ($16) and provides only a weak, ten-minute high. Lucy paid 300 yuan for a couple of grams.

Related: Watch our documentary about how China's booming billionaire population has developed a penchant for personal bodyguards.

Mark*, on the other hand, doesn't seem like the type of guy you'd expect to do drugs. He works as the COO for a major tech firm and doesn't speak much English, but does know such essential everyday expressions as "weed," "hash," "cocaine," and "heroin."

Mark says he was 22 when he smoked his first joint, and estimates that he smokes about ten or 20 times a year. "We usually get it at clubs or concerts," he said over lunchtime beers. Most of his smoking needs are satisfied through friends."It's like you share with me when you have drugs, and I'll treat you when I have drugs, very much like treating friends to dinner. Very typical Chinese style." Mark seems to have generous friends: He said he's only had to buy for himself once, from "a black guy near Chaoyang park."

"I had several Xinjiang classmates. They just put the drugs in a cigarette box and take them on the plane. That was before the Xinjiang Chaos [of June 2009]; now they can't do that anymore."

Everyone I interviewed had one thing in common: Their interest in pot was piqued by Western cultural imports.

The last time Mark smoked was about two months ago at a company retreat outside of Beijing. "After dinner, lots of my colleagues drank lots of beer. About four o'clock we smoked pot with a colleague from America. I smoked about two cigarettes," he said. "We can smoke like that in my company."

Mark isn't the only one mixing business with pleasure. "All of my friends" smoke, said Danielle*, a mainlander I met through Luke. Most of her circle are experimental actors or musicians. "[W]e don't really talk about it but just do it," she explained over the course of several emails. "My friends, my friends of friends, there are tones of us [ sic] living under the pressure, a cop inside of our brain, but we carry on the taboo anyway."

Danielle earned a reputation for daredevilry after she turned a trendy local café into personal grow-op. The secret garden, literally beneath customers' noses, flourished for a full summer and made her a hero to her artsy friends. (She insisted that the cafe, located in Beijing's old quarter, not be named, and cafe staff emphatically declined to comment.)

Everyone I interviewed had one thing in common: Their interest in pot was piqued by Western cultural imports.

Mark became curious about pot in high school, music serving as his gateway drug: "We watched movies and documentaries about American bands and wanted to try drugs," he said. "So that makes some conservative Chinese blame American culture for teaching us bad things. " Lucy got interested after reading Jack Kerouac.

In that context, China's anti-drug policy can be seen as of a piece with the government's reluctance to open the country's intellectual and cultural doors. But it obviously hasn't turned Beijing into a drug-free zone, and the crackdown, at least as of January, was set to conclude this month, after which the city's stoners will be able to exhale a little easier.

Echo Wei contributed research and translations.

*Names have been changed.