Inspiring Inclusion: Asians in Cannabis

Read the lived experiences of 10 cannabis industry professionals and how their cannabis careers have influenced their relationships with those closest to them.


Lunar New Year is known to bring Asian families together and more often than not, get-togethers resemble interviews with your aunties and uncles more than a celebratory dinner. With cannabis still being such a controversial topic amongst the general population (despite its legal status), it's safe to say that the conversation is even more tense when it comes to Asian minorities and their old guard immigrant parents.


With diversity and inclusion at the heart of AHLOT's company culture, we felt it was important to contribute to this ongoing discussion by shedding light on the experiences of different minority groups shaping the cannabis industry.

Norton Singhavon

Founder, Chairman & CEO of GTEC Holdings Ltd. 🇭🇰🇨🇳🇨🇦


I grew up in a typical Chinese household where we were lectured about drug use at a very early age, with the belief that anyone who sold or used drugs was either a criminal or homeless. So, when I told my parents I was entering into the cannabis industry, it was a bit of a shock to them. However, I had full support, with the exception of some warnings and lectures about “don’t get high off your own supply." Once talks about legalization began, they warmed up to the industry, and at times, were proud of what I was doing.


I think what really sold them was when I sent them a text, which was a photo of myself with Justin Trudeau.


Outside of my immediate family, I don’t think the rest of my family knows much about what I do for work. They likely assume that I am flipping real-estate with my father. My grandfather is a well-known Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner in Vancouver and although I think he would understand the medical benefits of cannabis, he would likely envision opium dens and a shady underground lifestyle, as this is how drug use has been portrayed in HK and China (which is where our family is from).


I’ve never been one who enjoys talking about my work or business in general, let alone with extended family. I find in Chinese culture, most relatives are quite nosey and seem to always compare whose kids turned out to be more successful. So I do enjoy the fact that my business life is kept private and mysterious, and I just fly under the radar with them.


Twitter: @nort604

LinkedIn: Norton S


Jessica Fung

Founder of Bluntbae 🇭🇰🇨🇦


I was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada when I was four years old. I came to Canada not speaking a word of English and was raised with my family's traditional values. Values that included education as the most important priority, to maintain my ability to speak Chinese, and to follow in my mother's footsteps to aspire to work in the medical field.


I think I came close.


When I was growing up, cannabis was never a topic of conversation in my family, nor was there any interest on my part to try it until my final year in university. However, it was not until 2018 that my interest in the cannabis industry began. It started with a school assignment, and just like that, Blunt B.A.E. was born, with a mission to de-stigmatize cannabis and to share my cannabis journey.


"Coming out" of the cannabis closet to my family has been greeted with double standards beyond my understanding. My father has been supportive while my mother doesn't understand my work nor the industry. And none of my extended family knows about my transition to the cannabis industry. It's a personal goal of mine to get my mother to come around, then the rest of my family will follow.


Instagram: @wearebluntbae


Jessica Kim

Controller of mihi inc. 🇰🇷🇨🇦


My parents were the only ones in my family to immigrate to Canada from South Korea. But they’ve always had, and continue to have, very strong ties to the Korean community since we grew up in North York and went to a Korean Catholic church. To their credit, they are much more open-minded to ‘Westernized’ ideas than many of their friends. For example, they became fluent in English (surprisingly not as common as you’d think) and enrolled my brother and I in a plethora of extra-curricular activities including competitive sports outside of the typical Asian extra-curriculars like piano lessons and Kumon. That being said, they were strict Korean parents who held strong traditional values.


While I was always quite open with my consumption of alcohol as it’s a very integrated part of Korean culture, I hid any and all consumption of cannabis from my parents growing up. Cannabis, like all drugs are extremely frowned upon by Koreans which, in my opinion has something to do with an overly cautious fear of becoming addicted. (My parents often prematurely discontinue taking and always caution me in taking any prescribed pain medication lest it result in addiction.)


South Korea is one of a few countries that maintain that the Korean law making cannabis consumption illegal, remains in effect for Korean citizens regardless of what country they may be in. While both my parents are now Canadian citizens, they remain very uncomfortable with any drug consumption. Even after my father underwent serious back surgery and my brother and I bought him some cannabis to help with the pain, he said he didn’t like it, that it wasn’t for him. So naturally when I made the decision to leave the corporate world behind (and with it, a career that my parents have thus far been extremely proud of) and join mīhī - a cannabis retailer - I remained very cryptic and vague when they asked about the company I would be working for. Only after slowly and occasionally dropping subtle hints over a 7 month timeframe was I finally able to confirm, when asked directly if our stores would sell cannabis, that yes, in fact they would. Perhaps it had something to do with the gradual reveal but my father only thoughtfully nodded in response.


While I know they will never be able to tell my family living in Korea where I work, I am hopeful that this is the first step to my parents becoming more open to cannabis and even one day visiting a mīhī store together to have a guide help them in their own cannabis journey.

Greg Pantelic

CEO of AHLOT 🇵🇭🇷🇸🇨🇦


I’m the younger of two children, solely raised by a single mother representative of my non-asian half. So, generally speaking, my older sister took on the brunt of eastern European strictness, which rivals the strictness of Asian parenting. As a developing mind in high school, my cannabis use was concealed and wasn’t condoned, however as an adult, it was understood that it was now my choice.




When I started AHLOT, my Mom was incredibly supportive. She saw my passion for the plant, the entrepreneurial opportunity, and the medical benefits (which to her credit, she researched on her own). I consider myself fortunate in this regard, as I haven’t experienced the same open-mindedness from the parents of my Asian friends, who’ve often resorted to remaining silent on my industry of choice. I’ve also witnessed my Asian colleague deal with a far less supportive familial situation when she chose to work in the cannabis industry. If ever given the green light, I’d be happy to do my part in reducing the stigmas around cannabis for all their families - in the most 尊敬 (respectful) way possible, of course.


Instagram: @gregpantelic


Ashley Chiu

EY Canada Cannabis Strategic Growth and Risk Leader 🇨🇳🇨🇦


My cannabis journey began back in the spring of 2017, while attending a conference in Vancouver focused on cannabis and hemp. I had the opportunity to hear from different speakers with various backgrounds, but I was especially fortunate to hear from an influential researcher and scientist as they dove into the world of cannabis. Unlike the others, this speaker didn’t just focus on the plant – but rather the molecular components such as cannabinoids and terpenes, and the clinical research that was being conducted around the world.


At the time Canada had only legalized cannabis for medical purposes and so it was – and still is – a controversial topic. Often times, people wouldn’t take my perspective seriously when I talked about the long-term potential for growth that I saw in the industry. But, I was an early believer that cannabinoids would have the potential to drive innovation and disrupt mature industries, while eventually evolving into a global marketplace.


I started searching EY’s global network and found a partner in Toronto that shared the same vision and outlook for the cannabis industry. The opportunity appealed to me because I realized that I could play a part in shaping the future of the industry by helping companies overcome challenges, capitalize on new opportunities and focus on growth. I instantly knew that it was my chance to make a difference, so I moved out east to help build EY’s Canadian, and now global, cannabis practice.


When my interest in cannabis first started, I never imagined that I would have as many opportunities or meet as many incredible people as I have. I’m so happy that I get to live out my passion through work – acting as an advisor to cannabis and hemp companies and adjacent industry stakeholders, as they make decisions around pressing challenges and opportunities. I also help companies consider and execute strategic mergers and acquisitions as the industry continues to evolve.


Looking back on my journey, I realize how lucky I am to have such incredibly supportive parents. My mom and dad were instantly accepting when I told them that I wanted to pursue a career in cannabis and they’ve always communicated how proud they are of me for going after my passions. I think the pace of innovation in this space is truly remarkable and I’m grateful to be part of a rapidly growing cannabis community – it allows me to meet people from all walks of life and ultimately, be myself!


Instagram: @ashleychiu

Twitter: @chiushley

Trang Trinh

CEO of TREC Brands 🇻🇳🇨🇦


My parents were refugees from Vietnam. They met at a church in London, Ontario - the city where I was born along with my five younger siblings. Cannabis was always frowned upon when I was younger, as was alcohol. However, as I moved out of home, I became more distant on sharing my personal life with my parents if I didn’t think they would approve. I also kept to myself because as the eldest of six kids, I’ve always felt the extra pressure of wanting to be a good role model for my siblings.



My parents have always been supportive in all of my passions and career choices. Partly, I think it’s because they don’t fully understand what I do.


At the same time, as long as I’m doing something that makes me happy, that’s all that matters to them. My mentality has always been to go for it, and beg for forgiveness later.


I acknowledge that the stigma exists and think we all need to do our part in talking openly about the industry and usage, know the facts and help educate. Additionally, as a woman and a minority, I hope that ‘going for it’ will help pave way for others and empower them to do the same.


Instagram: @trangmtrinh


Brands under Trang's leadership:

@trecbrands

@be.blissed

@winkcannabis

@thumbsup.brand


Tony Kwon

Brand Manager of High 12 Brands 🇰🇷🇨🇦


Growing up, weed wasn’t a “thing” - I always had to “take the dog for a walk” if I wanted to smoke. I can clearly remember trying to come up with ingenious places to hide it. In fact, I’m sure there’s still some stashed somewhere in my parents’ basement I’ve forgotten about.


Being a part of this industry has been a trip - when I launched RIFF, I got to travel across the country working with some really inspiring people, artists, musicians and smokers - a long way from sneaking joints on dog walks.


Instagram: @_tkwo


Kaitlyn Ho

Marketing Associate of AHLOT 🇭🇰🇨🇦

Born and raised in Markham, Ontario with a 6 year stint in Hong Kong for high school, I’m your typical second-generation Chinese kid. I went off to university without even knowing what cannabis smelled like. Unsurprisingly, my parents were taken aback to hear that my first job out of school would be within the newly legal industry. Reluctantly, they gave me the go-ahead, a provision that dropped the jaws of my Asian friends when I first shared the news. For them and their families, it would’ve been an automatic no, end of discussion.



That was 2 years ago.


While my friends have taken to following up introductions with an enthusiastic, “She works in weed!”, it’s still a very different story when it comes to family members and the older, Asian generation. My grandparents (and most of my extended family) are kept in the dark about what I do for a living and I tend to leave it at “marketing” when asked by family-friends. My job is not a discussion topic at the dinner table and any work-related updates are generally received without much fanfare (and often, unsolicited).


In a way, it’s nice - no one interrogates me about my work and they keep their opinions to themselves. But at times, the silence can speak volumes. I can only hope that one day, they’ll be able to see how much I’ve grown and the fulfillment I get from working in this industry.

Dave Choi

Partner at Botany Bureau 🇰🇷🇨🇦



I was part of the first wave of Canadian cannabis start-ups back in 2016. Now I stay on the pulse of the industry exploring new methods that move viable ideas forward.


My Korean lineage takes me back through Manchuria to Mongolia. My folks landed in a small town outside of Edmonton at the turn of the 70’s. They decided to road trip out of the cold and into Toronto.



Growing up second-gen Korean-Canadian in the 70’s and 80’s meant finding community through the church in the original Koreatown on Bloor. My parents were university-educated in the medical field that re-booted in Canada, going from convenience store to dry cleaner to steady careers at Mount Sinai and St John’s Rehab Centre. They showered me with violin, piano and figure skating classes, a road trip to Harvard and Hopkins, and constant chatter of disappointment. Balancing the extremes of the Korean protestant patriarchies, Anglo-Saxon nationalism, Canadian socialism, Toronto capitalism and Hollywood rebellion was a revelation.


First Encounter of the Green Kind

Weed found me… in my Scarborough high school parking lot. Cataraqui boys, Alton Towers boys, Big Circle boys, and other friends of different association always rolled through to educate the youth on the wonders of money and dope. I tried it, liked it, and rolled with it.

It was surreal when my mom found a bag of weed in my room; the moment passed quickly. She showed me the bag and asked: “Is this weed?” My response, “Yes, but I don’t use it, I’m only selling it”. She paused in confusion, tried to process it, then kinda shrugged it off in relief.

In my parents’ perpetual state of concern and frustration, they decided to table their thoughts in the church and announce, “My son is addicted to weed.” Oh man. Word spread fast and my church friends were howling. In protest, I stopped going to church, left home and went Supertramp into the wild. Weed followed my entire journey through university, careers in financial services & global design agency, cancer, 8 year post-transplant recovery and subsequent re-birth into the age of social media millennials.


New Order Transmission

Fast forward to present years and I find my parents elderly and fragile. Pain management is the predominant household narrative. Pain steers a different perspective on reality that distills life purpose to one goal: Get back to normal. Translation: relief at any cost. My accidental entry into commercial cannabis has evolved my plant knowledge that I’ve transferred to my folks.


They didn’t smoke but entertained the thought of vaporization, so I gifted them my Vapor Daddy Deluxe I got years back from the Friendly Stranger. A clunky wooden box with a long medical hose attached to glass, browned from many sessions of use. I ground and packed the bowl for them. They, again, looked confused, but, this time willing. Winning!


Through many spectacular moments, one memory stands above all. On one stay-over visit by mom, she decided to raid my freezer and make a stew with all the green veggies she could dig out. Not realizing that greens in my freezer are different, she dumped ounces of weed into her stew. What happened after involved a head out the window, a dump of her purse belongings in search of fluid and food, a leg out the window, and a mandatory pit stop at the convenience store. Net-net, the pain was gone and she was back to being mobile and crazy!


Instagram: @gochugochi

Ruth Chun

Lawyer and CEO, Chun Law Professional Corporation 🇰🇷🇨🇦




I’m the eldest of two model immigrant parents. My father came to Canada with a $400 debt to his brother for his plane ticket to Canada and was laughed at when he sought work the day after his arrival. My mother sacrificed and worked diligently for her family. Together, they worked hard, valued education and opportunity for their children, paid their taxes, scrimped and saved and found success.



My experience with cannabis and culture relates to morality and the plant. I was nervous and excited to join the industry at the beginning of 2017.


I was learning cannabis laws and taking a company public. I told my mother I was in “Pharma” and doing “public company stuff" which wasn’t dissimilar to some of the work I had done before. My dad, in response to Trudeau’s Easter address, said, “If Justin Trudeau was really a Christian, he wouldn’t have legalized marijuana!” and took a sip of his coffee. Cannabis and the law was not a topic of conversation unless it related to one-sided diatribes (not from me).


My parents have always been supportive and celebrate my work and my delight in my job; I truly love what I do. But the reservation or lack of enthusiasm for the subject matter, cannabis, stems from morality. Ideas that “drugs are bad” instead of acknowledging that use and abuse and addictions are the larger issues. I believe that education about cannabis and plant-based medicines generally, as well as responsible use, will help to displace narratives on morality.


There is absolutely a community in cannabis and I have had the joy of connecting with many fellow Canadian Koreans and Asian Canadians who are in the industry. It is important to have people who look like you and have different experiences at the same table or in the same room or in media. I said this to Margaret Cho when I met her in the early 90’s and I will tell Connie Chung one day if I ever run into her. Happy Lunar New Year everyone, may this be a year of positive evolution for all.

A sincere thank you to everyone who shared their experiences with us. We hope these stories help inspire other Asian Canadians and minority members to persevere and pursue their cannabis dreams, no matter the circumstances!

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