Interview: Green is the colour for Taiwan’s pioneering ‘weed lawyer’
As the legalisation of marijuana continues apace in western countries, attitudes towards illegal narcotics remain hard-line across Asia. However, Zoe Lee is trying change all that, starting in Taiwan.
With her dyed green hair and a passion for weed, Zoe Lee is not a typical Taiwanese lawyer. Running her own law firm and an award-winning podcast, the 32-year-old has made a name for herself pushing for the legalisation of marijuana in Taiwan.
“I was always really interested in cannabis, since I was in school. But, you know, Asian parents, Asian society would want you to be a successful commercial lawyer rather than a criminal lawyer, or a criminal, if you smoke weed here in Taiwan,” the human rights and environmental lawyer told HKFP.
Marijuana is classified as a level two drug in Taiwan, the same level as methamphetamine. Those found guilty of trafficking, manufacturing or dealing the substance face ten years to a lifetime in prison.
Lee, who had originally wanted to train as a commercial lawyer, made a radical career change after spending time in Europe, where she was allowed to smoke and grow cannabis legally. While abroad, some of her friends in Taiwan were arrested for doing the exact same activities she was enjoying overseas.
“Some of them got caught for basically sharing some weed with others, and they were considered as dealing weed,” she said. “Which is not true, because cannabis smokers tend to share weed with others. In this subculture, this is normal, but under this society and this system, it’s a serious crime.”
Although her friends’ sentences were ultimately deferred, Lee said her friends were “traumatised” from the legal process. “It was like torture… Some of them were detained for months. It was horrible. I felt bad for them. I did smoke, I’m a cannabis user as well,” she said, referring to her time abroad.
“I felt conflicted,” she said of witnessing her friends’ experience within Taiwan’s legal system, “So that’s why I decided to stand up and do something.”
Better Call Zoe
On her return to Taiwan in 2019, Lee, who studied law at the National Taipei University, struck out on her own to become the country’s first “weed-only” lawyer. Her firm Lee & Partners Cannabis Law Office, dubbed “Better Call Zoe” in a nod to the popular Netflix series, only takes on clients accused of cannabis-related crimes.
“I just wanted to focus on cases I was interested in,” the lawyer said. “People still find our firm strange, but we don’t care. We’re good at this.”
Her niche practice has raised eyebrows from others in the sector. “Still, even right now, my other lawyer friends still don’t believe I only take cannabis cases,” she said.
“I tell them ‘Please don’t pass me [cases] of other drugs. I don’t understand… I don’t know how to do them,’” she continued. “They say [drug cases] are all the same, but I say they’re not.”
Being Taiwan’s only specialist weed law firm, Lee’s access to Taiwan’s underground weed-using community has yielded unexpected discoveries. For one, weed-users in Taiwan did not fit existing stereotypes. Lee described her clients as “all kinds” of people.
“A lot of people think cannabis users are younger males with higher education, actually that’s not true,” she said. “They’re from all kinds of careers and education levels… they’re from everywhere, I was surprised.” Some of her clients were professors and teachers.
Lee believes Taiwan’s road to full weed legalisation will take at least a decade. For now, she is working on raising awareness for what the substance actually is, as opposed to the exaggerated demonisation of all drugs traditionally taught in Taiwan’s schools.
“All education basically teach us that weed is a kind of drug and it will poison you and if you start uses weed right now, the next day, you’ll start using heroin, and you’ll start to rob people, you’ll start killing for money, then you’ll have more money to buy more drugs,” she said.
The social taboo surrounding marijuana use in Taiwan means there is limited understanding of the plant: “People don’t understand… what cannabis is, even in the justice system. At court, we have to explain to the judge and the prosecutor, we don’t smoke cannabis leaves. We smoke cannabis flowers, but they don’t believe that. We have to convince them.”
The limited knowledge of cannabis in Taiwan’s judiciary can lead to what Lee says are unjust results. A lack of understanding of the difference between smoking cannabis leaves and flowers means defendants risk years of jail for growing even a male cannabis plant, which contains negligible levels of THC, the chemical which causes a psychological high.
Shallow cannabis knowledge is not restricted to Taiwan’s courts. Lee was surprised two years ago when a young person told her they were unaware that weed was illegal in Taiwan. The incident prompted Lee to start a podcast dedicated to cannabis, in Taiwan and abroad.
“My podcast is to educate people how to protect their rights, first,” Lee said. “Sometimes I introduce cannabis culture, or cannabis law in other countries.”
Lee’s podcast “In the Weeds” is produced by local production company Ghost Island Media, which is dedicated to “building podcasts with breakout voices and brands.”
“Two years ago, this production company was just a startup, and they felt free to touch on these kinds of radical issues,” Lee said.
The podcast won Lee the award of “Best Show Host” at an inaugural podcast awards run by popular music-streaming platform KKTV earlier this year.
In her quest to educate the public, the lawyer-podcast host said she was trying to strike a balance between demonising weed and glorifying it.
“I’m trying to bring more knowledge and information back here,” she said. Some users believe cannabis can cure everything, but this is not true. If you have mental issues, if you have this or that problem, if you have headache, you should go to the hospital, don’t be your own doctor.”
Medical marijuana use is currently allowed in Taiwan in very limited circumstances, with four types of medicine containing THC permitted for patient use.
Lee’s status as one of the most prominent advocates for weed legalisation in Taiwan grew after her first foray into politics last year, when she ran for a seat in the Legislative Yuan as a candidate for the Green Party — a centre-left party focused on environmental issues. She ran and lost on a platform for weed legalisation.
Despite her failed bid to become a legislator, Lee said the issue resonated with a section of Taiwanese society.
“[For] a lot of the people who supported the Green Party last year, it was the first time they really went to go vote. It wasn’t because they just turned 20,” she said, referring to the legal voting age in Taiwan.
“It was because they never cared about politics. But they hear that a political party is talking about legalising cannabis… then they say, ok it’s time for me to go vote.”
Lee, who currently serves as the party’s deputy general secretary, has said she would like to run again in Taiwan’s upcoming legislative elections in 2024.
She said public attitude towards pot in Taiwan is changing. “I think people will be more open to this topic,” she said, referring to an increasing turnout at Taipei’s annual 420 festival and rally in April.
“This time, 1,500 people joined,” she said. “Two years ago, there was only maximum 300 people. We were making jokes that we had more cops than people.”
“This taboo is definitely is going away. All the subcultures and music… they all talk about weed,” she said, referring to the legalisation of weed in Canada and some US states. A bill to legalise weed at a federal level was introduced in the US Congress in mid-May.
The shift in attitudes towards weed abroad is trickling into Taiwan through social media, Lee said. “People were afraid of this because they don’t understand what cannabis is. People have been brainwashed for decades and decades, and right now, we have the internet, we have podcasts, we have Youtube, and we can know what cannabis really is.”
The lawyer has witnessed small yet promising shifts in how weed is perceived in Taiwan’s younger generations under more progressive teachers.
In early May, Lee sat for another interview to discuss weed with unexpected interviewers – high school students looking to learn more about the plant for a school research project. “Some teachers are more open-minded and will teach the kids to think as individuals instead of just [accepting] whatever the textbook tells you.”
Some studies have linked long-term marijuana use to mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.
In Hong Kong, anyone found to have cannabis in their possession for personal use faces a fine of up to HK$1 million and seven years in prison, while those found guilty of manufacturing or trafficking dangerous drugs face a fine of up to HK$5 million and life imprisonment.