Be weed, my friend: Bruce Lee and cannabis

In July 1973 the world lost one of its greatest martial arts icons. Lee Jun-fan, affectionately known as Bruce Lee, actor, director, instructor, and a true artist in all senses of the word. The founder of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid fighting philosophy drawing on different fighting disciplines, he started the Kung-fu craze in the 1970s, transforming himself into an agile fighter who could do two-finger push-ups and send burly men flying with his famous faster-than-lightning punch.

But what many don't know is that Bruce Lee was a regular cannabis user. This is not the kind of story one usually hears about him, because since he died at the age of 32, the legend of him has grown to such mythological levels that many call him “Kung-fu Jesus”. However, after his death, rumours abounded that cannabis had been found in his stomach during his autopsy and was considered one of the main contributing factors in his death.

Cannabis made Bruce Lee a survivor

According to several of the authorised biographies written about him (books such as 'The Tao of Bruce Lee' or 'Bruce Lee, the Man of Steel'), in 1969 he seriously injured his back during a routine training session. He was told that he would never be able to practice martial arts again and that he would not be able to walk normally. Devastated by this news, Bruce became an investigator of his injury, of his body, and ultimately created his own path to healing.

July 20 marks the 49th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee. His career was meteoric, but his fame endures
July 20 marks the 49th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee. His career was meteoric, but his fame endures

The journey was long and there were many ups and downs. But it was thanks to his great will and his use of cannabis that the master of martial arts managed to recover and return in front of the cameras. Also, it was after this accident that he would make his three biggest box office hits in Hong Kong and then 'Enter the Dragon', his masterpiece and the last film in which Bruce Lee starred before he died on July 20, 1973.

It was known to all that Bruce Lee strictly held to a fanatical nutrition and fitness regimen. As a result, it is hard to believe that he would have used any type of narcotic substance. However, Bruce Lee was not superhuman. And like most humans, he was full of contradictions.

Bruce treated his body like a temple and a machine. The Zen way of life aspired to perfection and honesty. The famous 'be water, my friend' meant that a man must be able to adapt to any circumstance, however difficult it may be.

For example, there has been a lot of talk about whether or not Bruce was an insatiable drinker of alcohol. But the reason Lee didn't drink was that he suffered from alcohol flush reaction, an enzyme deficiency common among East Asians, occurring in more than 35% of people of Chinese descent, who, even after a few sips, suffer from nausea, a flushed face, and a quickened heartbeat.

Instead of alcohol, Bruce Lee's "vice" of choice was cannabis, since he discovered weed in the 1960s thanks to Steve McQueen, who was the first to hand him a joint while he was teaching the actor Kung-fu and Jeet Kune Do. And it was love at first sight with the plant.

Photo of Bruce Lee from the film ‘Fists of Fury’ (also known as ‘The Big Boss’), the second Bruce Lee film with the production company Golden Harvest
Photo of Bruce Lee from the film ‘Fists of Fury’ (also known as ‘The Big Boss’), the second Bruce Lee film with the production company Golden Harvest

Ingested marijuana is better than smoked

Bruce Lee smoked marijuana from time to time. However, since he was concerned about the effect of smoking on the lungs, he preferred to consume hashish brownies. According to "Enter the Dragon" co-star Bob Wall, Bruce Lee consumed at least two cannabis brownies a day to "get back on track" and de-stress.

To understand the love he professed for cannabis, Bob Wall also tells that one day at a party at his house, being the main actor and producer of the film, Bruce insisted that ALL his guests have their own cannabis, approaching the guests to pass them their own individual joints. When someone pointed out that this was excessive, as most people would only need a toke or two before passing it on, he responded, “No need to share. I want everyone to have their own."

In the final period of his life, Bruce Lee began to depend on hashish to rid his oppressed mind of all the terrible burdens that drove him insane. He had a young errand boy who was given the dangerous task of procuring the cannabis, which was being smuggled into China from Nepal. Like many other states, Hong Kong has very punitive laws against illegal drugs. And Bruce Lee, a man of little restraint by nature, was not one of those who limited himself to taking a couple of puffs on a hashish pipe.

Bruce Lee's explosive temper

Many might assume that since Lee was interested in philosophy, poetry, acting, and ballroom dancing (yes, he was a terrific dancer, not just when it came to sticking his leg out for walks), he would be patient and slow to show his wrath. However, he was known to have an unpleasant and irritable character. Bruce Lee realised that he had a terrible temper that needed to be controlled; and the weed did just that, calming him down.

Bruce Lee was also a perfectionist, brilliant, and extremely motivated by success. And when you're a perfectionist and brilliant, it's often hard to accept others who aren't as motivated or talented as you. And this 110% attitude was also tempered by his marijuana use.

It is said that Bruce Lee also chewed cannabis root, as he believed that it helped his muscles to be more relaxed and fluid in his fights. Even once dead, the autopsy revealed a large amount of hashish in his stomach, which makes it easy to imagine that he was a true user until the end of it. Some people would like to argue that cannabis was somehow the reason for his death, but in reality, this is not true.

All witnesses agree: During the last months of his life, Bruce Lee was headed for a crisis. The danger signs were unmistakable
All witnesses agree: During the last months of his life, Bruce Lee was headed for a crisis. The danger signs were unmistakable

Was a painkiller the reason for his death?

It has been blamed on the Chinese mafia, the revenge of other martial arts legends, and even a family curse that has continued to haunt his descendants to the grave. These are all conspiracy theories to explain the sudden end of a myth. But the cause, according to forensics, was explained as "accidental death" due to cerebral edema.

The official version affirms that on the fateful day of July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee was working on his next film, with the prophetic title 'Game of Death', for which he visited his co-star (and his lover at the time), Taiwanese star Betty Ting Pei, in her Hong Kong apartment. Bruce Lee arrived at three in the afternoon, and after hanging out with Betty, he had a light meal. Judging by the autopsy, Lee had a hashish brownie for dessert. Later, he began to complain of a numbing, persistent headache.

Ting Pei had no aspirin, but she had a similarly effective pill that her doctor had prescribed for menstrual pain, a painkiller called Equagesic. After taking it, Bruce retired to rest. But this medication contained a muscle relaxant that provoked an immediate allergy in the actor. His brain swelled and Bruce Lee was found hours later in a coma in bed. They were unable to revive him.

It seems hard to believe that a punching machine such as Bruce Lee could be defeated by a simple excipient-coated painkiller. From murder to heatstroke, there were a number of other wild theories attributed to Bruce Lee's death. Lee's friend (and fictional nemesis), Chuck Norris, said it was due to a reaction to antibiotics. Forensic pathologist Dr Michael Hunter claimed it was an adrenal crisis caused by cortisone overuse; and author Matthew Polly, after consulting with numerous medical experts for a 2018 biography (and arguably the best), said that he died of cerebral edema caused by overexertion and heatstroke. Also, in late 1972, Lee had the sweat glands removed from his armpits because he was of the opinion that sweat was unattractive on camera. Matthew Polly claims that might have had something to do with the fateful heat stroke.

But numerous witnesses affirm that, months before his death, Bruce Lee had an ungainly walk, was consumptive, confused, forgetful, paranoid, and prone to fits of rage with a depressive attitude. He was a guy with 1% body fat who had just lost 10 kilos due to the stress of insisting on re-shooting even the smallest detail of the fights in 'Enter the Dragon' over and over again.

Bruce Lee's grave is next to his son Brandon's in Seattle's Lakeview Cemetery
Bruce Lee's grave is next to his son Brandon's in Seattle's Lakeview Cemetery

Why was the painkiller theory accepted?

According to some witnesses present, minutes after the death of Bruce Lee was confirmed, the doctors who treated him met and someone asked them to ignore the use of cannabis in the official version, thus giving rise to a famous phrase by Dr. R. D. Teare, a drug expert who testified at the Hong Kong government's investigation into his death: "The cannabis we found in Bruce Lee's stomach affected his death as much as a cup of tea." But, according to Bruce Lee's personal physician in the US, Donald Langford, “they simply wanted to present a socially acceptable explanation. The Hong Kong authorities wanted to avoid embarrassment."

Bruce Lee was a youth hero. Every move he made was imitated by thousands of young people. If the actor's use of hashish were to become a major problem, Hong Kong could soon be hit by a hashish epidemic.

Cannabis has been illegal there since 1969, and this is one of the points where the law in Hong Kong (which has been an autonomous territory under Chinese control since the handover from the U.K. in 1997) is significantly harsher than Chinese law. Possession of even five grams of cannabis resin is punishable by a fine of 5 million HK dollars (about €600,000) and life imprisonment. Bruce Lee's use of cannabis could ultimately explain why his hometown of Hong Kong never named any streets, squares, parks or buildings after him.

There is only one tribute to the actor in the city, a bronze statue commissioned by his fan club: his fans raised $100,000 for the monument to be erected after asking the government for permission to commemorate his legacy. Located on the Avenue of Stars, a sidewalk on the waterfront of Hong Kong's Victoria Bay, in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, it depicts Bruce in his "ready to attack" pose from his iconic film 'Fist of Fury' released in 1972. The president of the fan club explained why they did it: "We had to honor his memory in some way, we want people to know about the legend of Bruce Lee."

The statue was inaugurated on November 27, 2005 by Bruce Lee's brother, Robert Lee, celebrating what would have been the 65th birthday of this popular cultural icon
The statue was inaugurated on November 27, 2005 by Bruce Lee's brother, Robert Lee, celebrating what would have been the 65th birthday of this popular cultural icon

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