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Medical marijuana plants in Richmond, B.C., on Mar. 21, 2014.The Canadian Press

Part of cannabis laws and regulations

Hundreds of students at the University of British Columbia celebrated the first day of cannabis legalization by lighting up outside the student union building last Wednesday.

But many Asian students kept their distance from the cloud of smoke due to the threat of severe punishments in their home countries upon their return.

Canada is only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize cannabis at the national level. However, use of the drug could pose problems for international students, with some embassies warning their citizens they could be punished for consuming cannabis in Canada.

“My mother would be pretty worried if she knew I was here to observe,” said Juan Leblanc, a Filipino undergraduate. “It’s really dangerous to consume cannabis back in my home country.”

Cannabis has been illegal in the Philippines since 1972. Medical use was legalized in March, 2017.

The situation is especially acute for students from Asia, where cannabis use is less socially acceptable than in North America.

“Japanese hold a quite conservative attitude to cannabis,” said Makoto Tonoki, an exchange student from Tokyo studying economics. “When I was a kid, my parents and teachers taught me marijuana is a drug and you can either give up drugs or your life. But when I went to boarding school in the United States, my classmates talked about and smoked cannabis all the time.”

The Japanese consulate in Vancouver sent an e-mail to all Japanese students, warning that they could still be punished by Japanese law for possessing cannabis in Canada. The maximum sentence is five years.

The day before legalization, the official account of South Korea’s embassy in Ottawa tweeted a warning to its citizens that if they consume marijuana in Canada, they could be penalized at home for committing a criminal offence. The tweet was forwarded about 3,000 times. More than 240,000 South Koreans are in Canada.

In China, cannabis is categorized in the same class of narcotic drugs as heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Chinese students are still subject to Chinese law while studying in Canada, meaning a student indulging while living abroad could be sentenced upon their return, if authorities find out.

Apart from going home, these smokers may also have to worry about travelling to another country.

While Canadian cannabis industry workers are generally admissible for pleasure trips to the United States, smokers could be banned forever by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Getting an entry waiver could take up to a year.

Jie Cheng, a professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, said these governments are within their authority to apply their laws to their citizens overseas. However, it might be difficult to prove they have actually consumed cannabis.

“It’s still not easy to collect decisive evidence accusing people of consuming cannabis even using people’s purchase history,” Prof. Cheng said. “My advice to international students: Don’t panic, obey the laws of both Canada and your home country, and never bring cannabis outside Canada.”

In a statement, the university counsel for UBC recommended international students familiarize themselves with the laws of their home jurisdiction and make informed decisions about whether to participate in activity that is legal in Canada but may be illegal at home.

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