Criminally effective Chinese medicine

  • by Alex Feng
  • Wednesday July 5, 2017
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Alex Feng, LAc
Alex Feng, LAc

Is it a crime or an ancient Chinese medical remedy? This particular treatment has been used in China for thousands of years. Elderly patients, wary of pharmaceuticals, swear by its effectiveness. Increasingly, research backs up this view – and regular doctors are recommending it more to their patients. Nevertheless, it remains in a legal gray area. But don't worry: California is bringing this healing method into the mainstream – led by an unassuming, middle-aged woman who isn't afraid to risk arrest to relieve her patients' pain.

Am I talking about acupuncture in the 1970s or medical marijuana today? Both. The paths these two treatments have taken to mainstream acceptance are remarkably similar.

With former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her husband, Dr. Floyd Huen, seeking to open what would probably be the first Chinese-owned medical marijuana dispensary in the Bay Area, it's worth looking at the history of these two types of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Not many people remember, but just over a generation ago you could get arrested for practicing acupuncture, right here in California. This happened despite acupuncture's deep history in China – going back to at least 100 B.C. – and probably much longer.

In 1969, Miriam Lee emigrated from China to California. At 43 years old, she put her training as an acupuncturist to the side and began working at a Hewlett-Packard factory in Palo Alto. Many of her colleagues on the assembly line suffered from chronic pain, especially in their neck and shoulders. Lee treated them in her home clinic. She was unwilling to let legal prohibitions keep her from relieving her patients' suffering. For these efforts, she was arrested in 1974 for practicing medicine without a license.

Vindication came two years later when then-Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation to legalize and regulate acupuncture in the state of California. Lee went on to an acclaimed career. She helped thousands of patients and trained a whole generation of acupuncturists. When she died in 2009 she was a figure of great esteem.

In the mid-1980s, a similar story unfolded in San Francisco, this time with an even older Chinese remedy: cannabis. The clearest archaeological record of cannabis in China dates to 2,500 years ago – although other clues point to an even earlier beginning.

In the 1980s, as AIDS cut down a generation of gay men, Mary Jane Rathbun, aka "Brownie Mary," sought to help them with brownies medicated with cannabis. For patients with painful neuropathy, nausea, and countless other symptoms, cannabis offered relief and dignity. For patients with wasting syndrome, cannabis restored their appetite – allowing many of them to stay alive long enough to benefit from life-saving medications. In those days, before dispensaries and effective HIV therapies, doctors had to tell patients to get this medicine on the street.

Like Lee before her, Brownie Mary was arrested, but undaunted. Ultimately she was honored and seen as a pioneer – inspiring a wave of cannabis healers and entrepreneurs that continues to this day. She died in 1999.

Despite sharing the same place of origin, cannabis and acupuncture diverge in one important respect. While acupuncture today is widely accepted by Asian Pacific Americans, many in this community (my community) now reject marijuana. Some even deny the archeological record of marijuana's long history in our ancestral homeland.

But that is changing. My Asian Pacific patients, like other patients, are quietly and cautiously trying medical cannabis. They tend to gravitate toward CBD-rich products that allow patients to benefit from this plant's healing properties, without the trademark "high." Progress is slow. Chinese immigrants grew up with government propaganda that suggests marijuana (which carries no acute health risks) is as dangerous as highly addictive drugs like heroin.

As cannabis continues its return to medical respectability, Chinese and Chinese-Americans should proudly reclaim this plant – both as medicine and part of our cultural heritage. If you are a patient with chronic pain, please, as the TV ads say, "Ask your doctor if marijuana is right for you." If you are already a marijuana patient, come out of the "cannabis closet" and let your Chinese friends, family and neighbors know that marijuana is your medicine and part of their history.


Alex Feng, LAc, OMD, Ph.D., is founder of Zhi Dao Guan, the Taoist Center and Clinic for Traditional Chinese Medicine in Oakland. He is a licensed acupuncturist (one of the first 300 licensed in California) and a Traditional Chinese Medicine physician.


This column originally appeared in Cantonese in Sing Tao Daily.