Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Dealing with weed

While authorities say it's not as popular as amphetamines, ecstasy or even heroin, marijuana is finding its share of users among Taiwanese and even spawning a cottage industry

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

A field of cannabis sativa, in Vietnam.

PHOTO: JULES QUARTLY, TAIPEI TIMES

Taipei's Shilin night market is known for stocking just about every item you'd ever need. But now there is a line of products on offer that few Taiwanese have ever needed before: bongs and pipes and widgets and wallets emblazoned with bright green pot leaves. The place where they're being sold is turning more than a few curious heads and -- more to the point -- its owner is turning a handsome profit.

"This stuff is becoming more accepted," said A-Xiang (阿翔), a lanky 20-something whose multi-colored hair and tattooed skin mark him as the man selling the merchandise.

"I don't think anyone could have sold these items even a few years ago. But attitudes are changing."

Indeed. Within a span of 20 minutes, A-Xiang is visited by a dozen young passersby who seem to know exactly what they want.

"Do you have one of those pipes that looks like a credit card?" asks a girl who doesn't look old enough to use a credit card, let alone a pipe.

"Sold out," A-Xiang says.

"How much for screens?" one young man wants to know.

A-Xiang hands him a free package of five.

A more curious exchange comes from a customer of few words. "Hey," the man says, coyly nodding at A-Xiang.

Without a word, A-Xiang hands him a pack of rolling papers and is handed exact change. Deal done. The man nods again and saunters away. A-Xiang adds NT$80 to a till that averages NT$80,000 in monthly profits.

CHANGING TIMES

Attitudes are changing -- at least A-Xiang's booming business is evidence of as much -- but laws are not. Marijuana use is listed as a Schedule 2 narcotic, in the same league as codeine, ecstasy (or MDMA) and LSD and is punishable by no less than seven years in prison, according to the Statue for Narcotics Hazard Control.

His clientele may be growing, but it's A-Xiang's creative use of nouns that keeps him in business. He claims not to have any trouble with law enforcement authorities as it's not illegal to sell "tobacco pipes" -- which is what all of A-Xiang's chrome-plated merchandise is meant for, of course, despite the decorative pot leaf.

Still, like most street-side salesmen, he keeps all his products in a large case that can be moved at a moment's notice. With the help of a large battery and clip lights, he can set up most anywhere.

A-Xiang, whose name means "flying in circles," can be found most nights at the same spot in Shilin night market. Other nights he might set up shop closer to the vendors selling snacks.

"I come here pretty hungry some nights," he said.

He's not likely to incur the wrath of the law. Apart from the Statue for Narcotics Hazard Control, the Criminal Code for the Republic of China makes no mention of marijuana in its "Chapter 20, Offenses Related to the Use of Opium," the only section in the ROC Civil Code to address illicit drugs. It lists cocaine, heroin and amphetamines in addition to its namesake, but stops short of proscribing punishment for the sale or possession of paraphernalia, including "tobacco pipes."

Rather, the scourge of law enforcement authorities in the past decade has been amphetamines and heroin. More recently, ketamine and ecstasy have become the drugs found frequently by police in raids on nightclubs. Marijuana has been barely a blip on the radar -- until recently, that is.

There were 8,500kg of illicit drugs seized in Taiwan last year, according to the Department of Health's Director-General, Li Jih-heng (李志恆), nearly three times the amount grabbed in 2002. Of that, nearly half was amphetamines, followed by ketamine, heroin, ecstasy then marijuana. Last year marked the first time the amount of ketamine seized surpassed that of heroin. While weighing in far lighter, the 121kg of marijuana seized last year marked a 10-fold increase from the 11kg seized the previous year, perhaps the biggest indicator of the drug's surging

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