by Brian Hioe
New Bloom interviewed Zoe Lee (李菁琪), party list legislative candidate for the Green Party, on November 29th. Lee is a human rights and environmental lawyer, best known for handling cannabis-related cases, and her podcast about weed-related issues.
Brian Hioe: First, could you introduce yourself for readers that may not know you?
Zoe Lee: I’m Zoe Lee, I’m a lawyer. My Facebook page is called Better Call Zoe. I also do a podcast, which is about weed. I started a fan page on Facebook in March about pot-related issues.
As a lawyer, I handle pot-related cases. Of course, it’s not only been pot-related cases. The Green Party’s candidate biography describes me as a human rights lawyer and an environmental lawyer.
I was originally at an NGO called the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association. It’s quite an interesting NGO, it only handles pro bono environmental cases. Because people usually don’t have the money for these cases.
Like the Asia Cement mine in Hualien. The indigenous there were scammed out of their land twenty or thirty years ago, there’s no way they would have enough money to sue this large conglomerate. These are the kinds of issues that Wild at Heart works on. It helps people file lawsuits without charge.
This was my first job after starting as a lawyer. I remember that as a lawyer there, my first case was suing Ma Ying-jeou, I think for failure to do his official duty regarding the Taipei Dome. Because he was Taipei mayor then. I believe it was regarding the oversight process for the construction of the Taipei Dome. It’s quite funny that this was my first case.
That’s how I got started as an environmental lawyer. After that, there were some various cases. The more experienced lawyers at Wild at Heart would take on bigger cases.
About being a human rights lawyer? At the end of 2017, the Tsai administration made changes to the Labor Standards Act. Everyone was running around Taipei in protest then. There was a city councilor from Miaoli, also a lawyer, who had a wedding banquet that day. I went to the wedding banquet, I brought some food from there to the protest for everyone to eat. Because the lawyers there were taking shifts.
From the Sunflower Movement onward, lawyers got into the habit of staying at protest sites, acting as a buffer between police and the people. The police would attack people, but when lawyers are there, they would do that less–I’m emphasizing less here, not that they didn’t still hit people.
During the Sunflower Movement, lawyers also took on the role of communicating between protesters and police. I was there during the Sunflower Movement as well, I had just passed my bar exam them.
Because we thought that there might be a large conflict that day, us lawyers took shifts there. So after I went over there from the wedding banquet, I brought some food for those who hadn’t eaten yet. I stayed until the afternoon. It was pretty fun.
Many of the protests that took place after the Sunflower Movement didn’t end up in the news. I would go on-site, sometimes not necessarily in my lawyer’s gown. Because I only have one and it’s a pain if it gets dirty. There’s even an urban legend that lawyers aren’t supposed to wash their gowns. But it really does get very dirty, so I do wash it. Sometimes you’ll see lawyers with lawyers’ gowns that are all black and dirty. I’m criticizing my elders. Whatever.
So human rights lawyers will go to protests. Protests about issues with similar values to me, I would go to, such as regarding the labor movement, the environmental movement, and others. What about in 2017, when lawyers got arrested? I was among them.
I remember that there was one protest in which I ended up in a police bus. That was on December 4th in 2017, there was a protest outside the Legislative Yuan and Ministry of Labor.
Everyone was ready to disperse then. It became a habit after the Sunflower Movement after a protest for people to move away from the protest, have some speeches on the street, and exchange business cards before dispersing.
I thought I would go over and take a look at that protest since it was right by the Zhongzheng First Police Precinct. I thought I’d go, just in case something happened. I didn’t think that, as it turned out, something would happen.
They were originally just sitting on Ketagalan Boulevard, but then they suddenly were waded in by razor wire, so they were sitting in the razor wire, giving speeches.
Then, later on, the police buses came, and the police surrounded everyone. They started pulling us onto the police bus one-by-one. I saw a participant being carried by four police officers. I shouted, “You! You! You! I’m Zoe Lee, a lawyer! Do you want me to represent you?”
He shouted, “I appoint you as my lawyer!” I shouted, “Okay! Then I will go onto the police bus with you.” And just like that, I crawled into the police bus. There weren’t any media there and there wasn’t any exposure from this, I wasn’t even wearing my lawyer’s robe, I just had my lawyer’s license on me.
Originally, they were hitting people on the bus, but when I climbed in, I shouted, “I’m Zoe Lee, a lawyer! Does anyone need representation?” After that, the police stopped hitting people.
That’s the first time I got onto a police bus. The second time I did got into the news. I was more used to it by then.
BH: I was actually also there.
ZL: Yeah, I was just walking, I have no idea how I got pulled into that.
BH: After participating in social movements, why did you decide to enter elections? How did you end up joining the Green Party?
ZL: I always participated in social issues and I participated in the marijuana legalization movement for some time. Whether with regards to pot or working as a [?], it’s an issue that drug users are seen as criminals. They should be seen as people suffering from an illness. It’s because of an illness that I might end up using heroin, amphetamines, cannabis, or ecstasy. If they’re sick, why is it that you punish them? There’s no point in imprisoning them.
To talk about it a bit differently, if I had a knife and I was hurting myself with it, you wouldn’t treat me as a criminal. But you do if I am using a specific drug to hurt myself and you’d put me in prison.
I brought this pillow with me to the Central Election Commission when I registered as a candidate. It looks like its full of cannabis if you don’t look close. I was trying to call attention to that a certain set of materials is seen as dangerous. For example, people don’t see tobacco, betel nuts, alcohol, or even sugar as dangerous in the same way. I wanted to think of some way to help these people. The people I’m more familiar with are cannabis users, so that’s why I focused on that.
Because people using heroin, amphetamines, or other drugs might not be as willing to talk about their experiences. Cannabis users can be a hassle, they might keep going on and on, but they’re each to come in contact with.
I first came into contact with cannabis users while abroad. At the time I was AirBnBing my apartment. I was in Paris then. Rent was expensive. I encountered a documentary film called “The Tree of Knowledge” then. They were trying to get donations not too long ago. Three years later, they’re still not done with the film yet.
At the time, they interviewed Robin Winkler. He’s one of the founders of Wild at Heart. He called me up and told me that there was a documentary that wanted to interview him. That’s how I got to know 420 Taiwan and started to encounter these groups.
I began to tell them what to do if they were caught. I’m a lawyer, after all. And then some strange things began to happen. They’d ask me, “Do I have to go for drug testing? Can I go to rehab instead?” I was responding to their questions for free online originally. Or if they were caught, they might call me up in a panic and I’d be like, “I’ll think of something to help you.”
When I returned to Taiwan, I didn’t finish my degree. I returned to Taiwan because of my health. I became a public servant. Sometimes you have to respond to questions online. So since I was getting these questions, I decided to become a lawyer focused on cannabis law.
Okay then. Why did I decide to run for office? Because I decided to go to the Green Party to lobby then, I was promoting the use of medical marijuana. By that, I might not mean like in California, where you can apply for a medical marijuana license online, and you can get it right away, and buy cannabis varieties that get you really high.
It’s not like that. Cannabis can has medical uses. It contains CBD and THC. It can help with depression, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, nauseousness, and allow for appetite when many medicines make you throw up. It helps with many of these illnesses. This can help with children, for example, who might not be able to absorb certain medicines. Cannabis can help with this.
I was lobbying for the opening up of these things. But now it’s not only California in which these things are unrestricted. And, for example, CBD. CBD isn’t a drug at all, You can buy it anywhere. Why is it that there are all these issues in Taiwan?
So I lobbied the Green Party and told them my thoughts. That was in October of this year. I remember that I brought a CBD tincture and a hemp rope then, which I bought from Daiso. These are two important components of cannabis. One is CBD and the other is a textile. I talked to them for an hour.
A week later, they sent a message to me, asking me to meet with them. That was after I had had two meals with them. It said: “We just finished our meeting. We decided to try and recruit you as a party list candidate, to give you a platform to talk about marijuana legalization. I said, “What?! What?!”
So why did I decide to enter politics? This is how I became a party list candidate for the Green Party. But this is mixed up with how I entered the Green Party.
There’s an organization worldwide called the Global Greens. It’s composed of political parties all around the world. If you identify with the core values, then you can also become a member of the Global Greens. Most countries in the world have a Green Party or something similar.
When we work on the environmental movement, we might take to the streets, lobby, and think of other ways to achieve our aims. Seeking political power is also a way of pushing for this. Some people may think of political power as an end, but for us it’s just a means. You have an end and this is a way to get there. Our aim is green politics.
We had a small protest this year for 420. Sort of like gay pride. 420 pride. We set up a small stage and had a small march. For most people, they might think stoners are all like, “Give me some weed,” “Pot is good,” or whatever. But hope for new discussions on this issue, not only regarding cannabis, but regarding other forms of drugs as well. That’s a larger aim of pushing for marijuana legalization.
How did I end up in the Green Party? There’s a Global Young Greens organization, which you are allowed to join if you are under 35. Before I joined the Taiwanese Green Party, I was a representative for the Asia Pacific region for the Global Young Greens, as a steering committee member, and a planner of events. I could attend the global meeting held in Liverpool. If you look up the Global Young Greens, you’ll see my name.
So when I came back to Taiwan, I would talk first with the Green Party. You could see it as that I was at the parent company, but that I came back to Taiwan, and went to Taiwan to say hi, but then ended up getting to know them.
BH: Compared to past years, what do you think is particularly significant about this year’s elections? What issues are Taiwanese voters concerned with? Cross-strait relations?
It’s very apparent that this year is focused on resisting China and protecting Taiwan. You can’t say that the government is trading off of a sense of national doom. It’s actually the KMT which is always going on about this, saying that the ROC is about to disappear. It’s tried this many times.
ZL: Because of the events in Hong Kong, everyone is very alert toward China right now. But you have the Taiwan People’s Party now. Behind that is China. It’s a fake political party.
Compared to the last set of elections, it’s quite interesting. Last time, people kept talking about the need to drag down the KMT. But after the end of the Sunflower Movement, many young people felt dissatisfied. Four years later, what have we learned?
I think that the real beliefs of some people are clear now. Four years later, I voted for Ko Wen-je, the first time he ran for Taipei mayor. That was the first time I voted in my life. I didn’t vote in the past.
Just it’s not like in the past, where people would see an icon or a god, and they would be their fans forever and always vote for them. So people now criticize Ko Wen-je. Past Ko fans have sometimes are now Ko haters. There are more and more people like that. I feel our ability to be critical of politicians has improved. I think it’s a very big difference.
Taiwanese people are focused on these issues. Regarding domestic issues, the Green Party was is this. While William Lai and the Formosa Alliance were attacking Tsai, the Green Party stated that it supported Tsai Ing-wen. Before even the DPP settled on its choice of a presidential candidate, we had already decided to focus on other issues.
The Green Party is an environmental party. Regarding the issue of cross-strait relations, if the Chinese government was an environmentally friendly party, our views might be different. But you see how many people have died in Hong Kong and how the air in Hong Kong has been polluted like that.
Some people might say that politics are politics and environmental issues are environmental issues. It’s not like that. Environmental issues are political ones. Everything is politics. But if you really think a political party that uses toxic tear gas everywhere is friendly to the environment, that means you not only don’t care about the environment or human rights, in accepting this political rule. So it’s very clear why we should stand for protecting Taiwan and resisting China.
We’ve been filing a lot of lawsuits lately. We filed one against Guo Guan-ying, for stating that he was overseeing the election for the CCP. Today we filed one against Han Kuo-yu. We’re very alert toward this.
BH: Do you think the present election reflects increasing participation by Taiwanese young people?
Yes. I think this is a good thing. You can see that of the young people that emerged after the Sunflower Movement, we’re not second-generation politicians usually, like Chiang Wan-an or someone like that. He took over his father’s old electoral district and his father was riding on Chiang Kai-shek’s coattails.
ZL: Young people are participating in politics presently as well. The Taiwan Statebuilding Party has a very young candidate, Yan Ming-wei, for example. He did something very interesting in the past, which was to throw a copy of Formosa Betrayed at Ma Ying-jeou. He’s running this time as well. Why did these people not run for office in the past?
Because in the past, when young people participated in politics, everyone felt that we could only work as assistants, that we should leave matters up to those more experienced. But later, we felt that if these people could get voted into office, why not run ourselves. I think that more and more young people discovered this, that we’re not any worse than they. OK, boomers. Why not run ourselves?
I think this is a good phenomenon. I’m 31 years old right now. I’m not even among the youngest of the candidates running this time. There are candidates younger than me, in their twenties. These younger candidates aren’t anyone’s son or daughter.
It’s harder to deceive people now. Again, Ko Wen-je and the TPP. Four years ago, using that this kind of name, he could have very well run for president. But now, everyone sees that he’s trying to deceive us. Even Chiang Wei-shui’s descendants criticized him for using that name.
BH: Do you believe that the way Taiwanese young people stand for progressive causes can be situated as part of international trends?
I do think it has to do with international trends. I believe that it’s particularly linked with the spread of the Internet and smartphones, as well as the development of social media. Everyone is connected now. The speed at which information travels is very fast.
I might have seen some fake news on Telegram that later spread to Line. But not too long after, someone will have deciphered that it was fake news. That it was fake news will spread across Reddit, Instagram, Telegram channels, and etc. very fast. This is what young people are good at.
On the other hand, it might hard to teach old people how to do something like how to use Facebook, but this comes very naturally to us young people. So we go at it.
BH: Lastly, is there anything you would like to say in closing to readers, both Taiwanese and international?
ZL: When I first started working, my supervisor told me, “Don’t let them look down on you because you are young.” I had just graduated and my first job was working as a research assistant at the National Palace Museum. It’s a phrase from the Bible. I myself am not religious, but my supervisor was a very devout Christian.
And I hope that young people can go out and vote. I voted for the first time when I was 25 years old. I missed many elections. I was too lazy to go out, I preferred going to watch a movie, to sing karaoke, anything but voting.
But my grandfather and grandmother, who were quite old, would go out and vote despite having to walk with a cane. At that point in time, I thought that it didn’t matter anyway.
That’s wrong. We can do it, so long as we don’t give up on ourselves. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will save you.
BH: Thank you!