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North Korea has been branded as a ‘weed-smoker’s paradise’ — but the truth is more complicated

For years, there have been rumors that North Korea is a “weed-smoker’s paradise. ” Cannabis is said to grow wildly there, and people can reportedly buy it in large, bazaar-style marketplaces and smoke it wherever they like.

But marijuana’s legal status in North Korea is hazy. An investigation by the Associated Press debunked the myth of the pot-friendly, totalitarian nation — despite numerous reports over the years saying North Korea is exactly that.

Most of what we know about life inside the Hermit Kingdom comes from estimates by outside agencies, as reports from the government are unreliable. The internet does not exist outside a closed domestic network. Without direct access to the law on the books, we’re left in a fog on drug policy.

In January, the AP’s Eric Talmadge provides some of the most conclusive evidence yet that marijuana is illegal in North Korea.

Torkel Stiernlof, a Swedish diplomat living in North Korea, told the AP that marijuana is a controlled substance in the same category as cocaine and heroin. He rejected the idea that government looks the other way when it comes to drug use, as some online stories suggest.

“There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here,” Stiernlof said. “One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offense to smoke it.”

Still, first-person accounts and anonymously sourced news articles have flooded the internet in recent years, spreading the idea that marijuana is legal and abundant in North Korea. There is such confusion, Simon Cockerell, the general manager of tourism agency that specializes in North Korean travel, told the AP that prospective visitors often ask what to expect.

“We apologize, but have to inform those inquiring about this that weed is not legal. They are not going to be able to get any there,” Cockerell said .

A brief entry on Wikipedia explains the situation best.

“The status of cannabis in North Korea is unclear due to the lack of sources available to the outside world, with some observers stating that cannabis is effectively legal, or at least tolerated, in the country and others arguing that this is a misapprehension and that marijuana is illegal in the country,” according to Wikipedia.

In 2013, a 29-year-old freelance writer blogged about his experience rolling “comically oversized joints” in the center of a crowded market on the country’s northern tip. “Bizarre as the situation was, it seemed a reasonably safe move,” he wrote. No one intervened.

Since then, news outlets as varied as The Huffington Post and High Times have praised the nation’s “liberal policy of tolerance” and “dirt-cheap” ganja. Merry Jane, a cannabis-lifestyle blog founded by Snoop Dogg, asked if North Korea could become the next Amsterdam of pot tourism after reports came out of foreigners headed there to buy marijuana at $3 a pound. (The going rate in Colorado, where the drug has been legal since 2012, is about $1,471 per pound.)

Part of the confusion surrounding the legal status of cannabis might come from misunderstandings about what the plant is.

The green, fluffy substance known as hemp is often confused for cannabis (commonly known as marijuana). Unlike cannabis, hemp does not get users high if they smoke it, because the plant contains only trace amounts of a chemical compound known as THC.

Hemp is grown legally with state sanction, according to the AP. It can be used to make consumer goods ranging from cooking oil to towels, as well as military uniforms and belts. On May 3, UPI wrote that North Korea authorities actually encourage hemp cultivation because it can be used for fuel to power the state’s military drones. (That report has not been confirmed by any other news outlet.)

It’s possible that people who saw or used hemp in North Korea mistook it for cannabis.

Troy Collings, managing director of a travel agency that brings foreign tourists to North Korea, told the AP that he’s purchased hemp before as a “cheap substitute for tobacco.”

“It grows wild in the mountainous regions of the North and people pick it, dry it, and sell it in the markets,” Collings said, “but it doesn’t get you high no matter how much you smoke.”

Rumors are flying that North Korea is home to a pot-friendly regime, but we know very little about drug law there.

Cannabis in North Korea – Laws, Use, and History

North Korea is largely closed off to the rest of the world and is regarded as an illiberal country. In the past, experts have claimed that cannabis is not viewed as a ‘hard drug’ in the eyes of the law, and can be smoked, owned and even sold freely. However, the truth is a little less clear-cut – and hard to uncover in the ‘hermit kingdom’.

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Cannabis laws in North Korea

Can you possess and use cannabis in Korea?

North Korea is often regarded as a conservative country, with harsh laws against many offences. Although hard drugs such as heroin are illegal there, some experts claim that cannabis is not. Reports have even gone as far as to say that it can be freely smoked and even sold, without prosecution.

For example, in 2013, Vice News reported that cannabis was widely smoked as ‘ip dambae’; a cheap alternative to tobacco.

However, it’s difficult to establish the truth of the situation, as few people visit the country. Torkel Stiernlof, a Swedish diplomat who lives there, states that cannabis is an illegal substance, and is classified as harmful as cocaine and heroin.

He told the Associated Press that: “There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here. One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offence to smoke it.”

Generally speaking, the law in North Korea is strict, with the death penalty in place for serious crimes. According to Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide database, regular executions are carried out in secret; and some are for drugs-related offences. However, as the outside world isn’t granted access to specific legislation, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions.

Can you sell cannabis in North Korea?

It’s ambiguous whether it’s legal to sell or supply cannabis in north Korea, and conflicting reports make it hard to get to the truth of the matter. For example, Radio Free Asia (which is funded by the US government) released a story in 2018, stating that North Koreans were selling cannabis to Chinese and Russian tourists – from the special economic zone of Rason.

It’s thought that this cannabis was actually hemp, which doesn’t contain enough THC to achieve a high. Troy Collings, the MD of Young Pioneer Tours, commented: “I’ve seen and even purchased hemp, it doesn’t contain any THC and is just sold as a cheap substitute for tobacco … it doesn’t get you high no matter how much you smoke.”

Can you grow cannabis in North Korea?

Without any official legislation to refer to, it’s difficult to say whether cultivation is legal in North Korea or not – though based on the limited evidence available, it’s probable that cannabis cultivation is a prosecutable offence.

However, cannabis grows in the wild in North Korea; particularly in the mountainous northern regions. There have also been reports of people cultivating cannabis in their gardens, though there is no official evidence to back this up.

Is CBD legal in North Korea?

Again, this is ambiguous. Although CBD contains low levels of THC (and therefore cannot provide a ‘high’), North Korea’s other drugs laws are strict, and may extend to the use or sale of CBD oil.

Can cannabis seeds be sent to North Korea?

Without official legislation, it’s safer to presume that the sale and purchase of cannabis seeds is illegal in North Korea. This is also the case for sending them into the country by post.

Medicinal cannabis in North Korea

Unlike South Korea, which has recently stated its intention to legalise cannabis for medicinal use, North Korea shows no signs of doing the same.

Industrial hemp in North Korea

North Korea has an active hemp industry, as companies such as the Pyongyang Hemp Processing Factory can testify. They make a range of environmentally friendly products from hemp. An official from the company informed the Associated Press that there are several varieties of hemp grown in the country; all of which contain very low levels of THC.

“No-one smokes this in our country,” she emphasised. “It’s only used for making things.”

According to a recent report, North Korea has one of the largest hemp cultivation areas in the world, with an estimated 27,500 hectares dedicated to growing the plant in 2004. Also in 2004, the country reportedly produced 12,800 metric tonnes of hemp, making it the globe’s third largest producer. Only China (38,000 metric tonnes) and Spain (15,000 metric tonnes) produced more.

Hemp is cultivated across North Korea, with key growing areas located in North Pyongan, South and North Hamgyong, and Ryanggang. These are all northern provinces, and all share a border with China.

In 2008, North Korea’s government forcibly seized hemp sacks from farmers in North Pyongan and limited each person to a maximum of three hemp sacks each, which sparked ill-feeling among the community. This illustrates how important hemp is to the rural communities of this country.

Good to know

If you are travelling to North Korea (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • The goddess Mago / Magu was traditionally worshipped in North Korea. She was usually associated with the hemp plant, taking her name from the Chinese word for cannabis – ‘ma’.
  • It’s believed that some North Koreans choose to smoke cannabis as an alternative to tobacco. Cannabis grows widely and is cheap, while cigarettes are expensive.
  • According to The Bohemian Blog (written by the British travel writer and photographer Darmon Richter) it’s easy to purchase cannabis in North Korea, and smoke it in public without prosecution. However, this is just one person’s experiences and should not be taken as evidence that the North Korean authorities permit this.

History of cannabis in North Korea

Cannabis grows wild in North Korea and has done for centuries. It’s believed that it was first cultivated by farmers in 6,000 BC, though evidence to support this is scarce. However, findings in nearby China and Japan date hemp use back to 5,500 – 4,000BC and 4,000 – 2,500BC respectively, so it seems probable that it was also being used in North Korea.

A piece of hemp thread strung through a needle was found in the north of the country in 1979. It’s thought to date back to 4,000 – 2,000BC, to the Chulmun / Jeulmun Period. The Ye-Maek people that lived on North Korea’s east coast were also believed to have cultivated hemp, and near Pyongyang, the Painted Basket Tomb revealed fragments of hemp textiles.

Judging by the evidence found by archaeologists, hemp use continued uninterrupted over the years. In 1998, experts discovered a 16 th century tomb in South Korea, which had a pair of hemp-bark sandals inside. It seems likely that both North and South Koreans never stopped using this plant, and continue to do so today.

Prior to World War II (and the creation of North and South Korea), the region had an active hemp trade with Japan. However, after the war, hemp was banned in Japan, and trading ceased accordingly.

The media portrays North Korea as being a ‘cannabis-smoker’s paradise, which goes against the country’s popular image. Here’s more information.