The Canadian cannabis industry is still booming. Four years have passed since the country’s government legalized the cultivation, distribution, sale and use of cannabis products, and merchants throughout the country continue to find ways to continue growing their operations. But, with a near-saturation of most markets, growing share through the acquisition of newly available real estate is becoming much more challenging. As a result, intensified attention is being cast toward the cities and regions within the country that have not yet allowed the industry to enter.
However, there are most often definite reasons for the decision to opt out. And, more times than not, it’s a decision that’s rooted in the sustained negative stigma around cannabis use.
A Number of Forces
In Richmond, BC, for example—a thriving urban market with a population of nearly a quarter million people—cannabis retailers are not yet able to lease commercial space to operate. The city is where Vancouver International Airport is located and is best described as a bustling metropolis filled with vibrant activity. In short, it seems just as suitable a city as any other to nurture the growth of the cannabis industry and reap the economic benefits that result. However, Richmond is also well-known for its Asian influences and subsequent negative perception and attitude toward cannabis use. It’s a stigma that continues to exist within many Asian-Canadian communities across the country. And, according to Audrey Wong, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Zyre Brands, it’s a stigma that makes it incredibly difficult to reach members of these communities with positive messaging concerning the issue.
“This is an issue that’s being driven by a few different forces,” she says. “The historical impact of drugs on certain Asian communities, like that of opium on the Chinese community, has for a long time shaped perceptions around drugs. It’s also an issue of conformity. Many people within these communities came from homogenous countries where there’s an overarching negative mindset toward cannabis. As a result, a lot of cultural stigmas are being brought forward. And, one of the factors that is more relevant than some might think is that of racism. In the United States, the ‘war on drugs’ was framed as a race issue, depicting the black community as the users and propagators of cannabis in the country, illustrating the negative impacts of cannabis whenever they could. It was messaging that taught Asians in North America, through a racist lens, to stay away from cannabis as though it doesn’t offer any benefits or advantages.”
She goes on to explain that it’s a combination of factors that makes the introduction of the message to these communities difficult, with any attempts to do so often met with resistance. Wong is also Executive Director of Elimin8Hate—a non-profit organization that aims to eliminate racism against Chinese-Canadians—and explains that there are societal and philosophical reasons that help explain the seemingly immoveable mindsets of many Asian-Canadian communities around the use of cannabis.
“Not just representation, but quality representation helps combat stereotypes and prejudices against certain groups of people in society,” she asserts. “It’s the same when talking about the relationship between Asian-Canadians and cannabis. Allowing the presence of cannabis retailers in a city like Richmond, showcasing that they’re just another business operating within the community, can go a long way toward breaking down some of the stigma around the industry.”
An Untapped Market
When it comes to quality representation, Wong recognizes the importance of people like herself—a Chinese-Canadian—operating successfully within the industry and the value of her efforts to promote a positive message around cannabis. Though, she laments, she is one of but literally a few female Chinese-Canadian leaders within the industry. In fact, according to a study developed by the University of Toronto in cooperation with the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation at the tail-end of 2020 titled How Diverse is Canada’s Legal Cannabis Industry? 84% of cannabis industry leaders are white. And, just 9% are Asian. As a result, she explains, there is a natural disconnect between the industry and the country’s Asian population, and the missed opportunities continue to amass.
“Roughly 20% of Canada is of Asian heritage. So, one in five people are feeling alienated without a sense of belonging within the cannabis industry. As a result, we’re missing out on a completely untapped market. How do we reach out to this potential consumer? With respect to the social aspect of this issue, if you have large swaths of a population that aren’t meshing with the majority, they end up feeling left out or not consulted. In light of this, the industry has got to do a much better job of advocating a positive message and its need for the Asian-Canadian community to participate in its growth and future success.”
Image courtesy of Audrey Wong.