Drug Laws & Taboo In Asia: Part 1

How do Asian governments maintain strict anti-drug laws? Will they hold up with the changing times?

Asian Countries are known for having a strict viewing of drugs; the taboo often bleeds into the culture itself. Their anti-drug laws are the harshest globally, deterring any curious citizens from even possessing a drug. It has been a mission of the governments making up Asia to obtain a completely drug-free continent. Where other countries have given up on the idea, seeing it as an impossible feat, Asian countries see it as entirely possible, given proper governing and repercussions, like the death penalty. But why do these countries all see drugs as a cataclysmic demise to their governments and social structures? What keeps them so motivated in fighting to keep drugs out of the hands of their citizens?

The (First) Opium War

British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, 29 May 1841. Watercolour painting by Edward H. Cree (1814–1901), Naval Surgeon to the Royal Navy.

It started in 1839 when Imperial England decided to get Asian citizens hooked on opium, a drug cultivated in countries under their control for maximum trading opportunities. The poppy plant, mostly grown in India, was the only export England was able to entice Asian traders after introducing them to the drug. Opium became so popular that even the imperial family, the Qing dynasty, got addicted to the drug, subsequently resulting in the family’s downfall and marking the end of Imperial rule in Asia. After the opioid crisis spiraled out of control, Asian countries began to enforce heavy regulations to stop the import of the drug. Bans and seizures of opium’s possession/ trading, and death penalties were enforced. Since then, governments around Asia have been scarred by the memory of opium-addicted society; therefore, their strict anti-drug laws are a byproduct of fear.


Hong Kong
Image by @agromov from Unsplash

In current times, drugs are still highly taboo in Asian culture. Wendy Hung, CEO of Jetset Times and Taipei native, says that “Nowadays, Western-educated Asians bring back western-influenced drug culture; however, it’s very niche. Most of Asia typically does not do drugs. But Asians like me, those who grew up in America, see drugs differently than those who’ve been brought up in Asian countries.” Since the 1980s, China has had an “open-door” policy for trade with certain countries, which allows the opportunity for illicit drugs to be trafficking into the cautious country. To remain on top of drug activity, Chinese police are reported to have been documenting any and all drug users they come into contact with, entering their identities into a computerized system to keep track of those engaging in illicit activity. A study done in 2016 found that drug use among Chinese citizens is steadily increasing; however, heroin usage is decreasing. Synthetic Drug usage (crystal meth and Ketamine) is the most popular amongst registered users.

Due to the many entries of import, there have been numerous attempts at making drug trafficking harder. Efforts are increasing towards containing trafficking from the Philippines and Thailand. Though largely under-reported, data available shows that opiates and amphetamine-type substances are popular with trafficking, and psychoactive substances are rising in popularity. Ketamine use is growing in China, and synthetic ca`thinones in Southeast Asia; all becoming significant points of concern for the conservative governments.

The Golden Routes

There are two vital drug-trafficking routes popular within Asia – The Golden Crescent, and The Golden Triangle. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “The ‘Golden Crescent’ comprises the opium-producing areas of South-West Asia, including Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. The ‘Golden Triangle’ is situated in South-East Asia and comprises parts of Myanmar, Thailand, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Vietnam.” These two routes combined make up the most powerful opioid trading route in the world. Both routes have been a significant plight towards the drug-free utopia Asian governments are striving for. It is estimated that 8,000 out of the world’s 9,000 tons of heroin came from Afghanistan in 2007, making the Golden Crescent the world’s leading opium producer and trafficker. There are an estimated 167 square miles of opium cultivation in Myanmar in the Golden Triangle, making the Triangle second in opium cultivation.


Anti-drug laws. Image by @torovaldiva from Unsplash

It is theorized by many historians that the cannabis plant originated from Central Asia and has been cultivated since the Neolithic Period. The plant has been notoriously stigmatized since the early/mid-1900s. Possession laws differ through the various countries that make up Asia, but all of them see marijuana as an illegal, mind-altering substance that warrants years in prison for possession. However, only Thailand and South Korea have, only recently, legalized medical marijuana.

Countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Armenia, and many more have strictly enforced anti-drug regulations that outlaw any and all consumption, cultivation, and trafficking. With a small amount of cannabis threatening citizens with years in jail and heavy propaganda of its dangerous mental effects, cannabis is heavily deterred from use. Since Canada’s legalization of marijuana in 2018, China has seen an influx of cannabis seizures from Canada, which has threatened the communist party’s strict view of drugs. In a statement to the public, China warned that Chinese tourists heading to Canada be wary of the drug “for the sake of ensuring your own physical and mental health.” Both Japan and South Korea also warned their citizens of the same dangerous effects.

As medicine advances and drug ideals change, how long until Asian governments relinquish their conservative grips on drugs? While opium remains an issue and a deep-rooted fear within governments, cannabis and psychedelics’ medicinal value are already beginning to persuade the younger generation to dabble. Millennials in Asia seek to reform their country’s harsh drug punishments and start the conversation of decriminalization before legalization. While some countries like Thailand and South Korea are letting up their strict anti-drug regulations, it’s difficult to predict if other countries in the continent will follow suit.

Daniella Fishman


Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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