America has its faults; both historically and currently. At present, weed is federally illegal; but at least it is legal recreationally in 11 states plus D.C., and medicinally in another 22 states. Our current president may divide opinion, but at least Americans got to cast a vote and have the option to elect someone else at the end of next year if we choose.
We may not like the way Big Pharma is allowed to continually sell opioids, the insane cost of healthcare, or our president’s latest tweet, but at least we have the freedom to whine about it publicly without fear of punishment.
North Koreans have no such luxuries. Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s estimated population of 25 million people is under the thumb of an unelected leader, Kim Jong-un. It is a one-party state often accused of being the world’s most oppressive.
A recent UN inquiry into the country’s human rights record concluded that no country in the world parallels the “gravity, scale, and nature” of violations. The United States of America is, theoretically at least, the polar opposite of North Korea with free elections and freedom of speech. It is no surprise to learn that America is the #1 enemy in the eyes of North Koreans, who are spoon-fed anti-American propaganda daily.
You would assume that in such a totalitarian regime, the marijuana plant would be off-limits. However, reports emerged a few years ago which suggested a surprising attitude to weed in North Korea. But are these whispers based on fact or fiction?
The Rumor Mill
The truth is, no one is 100% sure about the truth, because finding out information about the nation’s laws is extremely difficult. Everything is tightly controlled inside North Korea. Anyone who visits the country is closely shadowed and is not allowed to wander out of sight. Outside of a closed domestic network, there is no internet, and we can take any information given by the North Korean government with a mountain of salt.
Rumors about the legality of weed go back to at least 2010 when Open Radio for North Korea, an American NGO, said they received information about a crackdown on methamphetamine, but not cannabis. In fact, an anonymous source from within the country claimed that the regime didn’t classify marijuana as a drug.
In 2013, VICE News claimed that cannabis was not only widely used in North Korea, but that the government turned a blind eye to its usage. Practically every report about the legality of cannabis (known as yoksam) in North Korea comes from tourists or defectors.
According to one English freelance writer named Darmon Richter, it was possible to purchase a grocery bag of marijuana from a rural North Korean market and smoke it openly. Richter said his ‘minder’ smoked the herb with him and other tourists.
According to Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, weed grows in the wild in North Korea and is sold by government agencies to earn more money for the regime. Whether or not it is officially legal is unknown, but Shirley Lee of New Focus International claimed that it was “as good as legal.”
In 2013, an anonymous American consultant, who had visited North Korea annually since 2008, said he witnessed North Koreans growing weed in small gardens. He said that the herb was primarily used as a medicine. It is also popular amongst the lower classes of society who smoke it as a means of relaxing after a hard day’s work. It has also been reported that marijuana is available for just $3 a pound!
Should I Go to North Korea to Get a Dirt-Cheap High?
Not so fast! Even before we delved deeper into these reports, there were red flags. First and foremost, North Korean cannabis grows wildly on the side of the road. In other words, we are talking about low-quality ditchweed. Therefore, if you can get your hands on some, it is highly unlikely to get you baked; unless of course, you are a complete novice.
More pertinently, the Associated Press decided to look into this claim for itself, and its investigation revealed that marijuana IS illegal in North Korea. In 2017, a Swedish diplomat named Torkel Stiernlof, who was living in North Korea, told the AP that cannabis is a controlled substance with the same classification as heroin (sound familiar?).
Stiernlof was adamant that all drugs were illegal in North Korea. He went on to say that you can’t purchase it legally, and it is against the law to smoke it. The diplomat also said that if an American citizen was caught using weed, they could expect zero leniency. Bear in mind that Americans have been severely punished in North Korea for offenses such as leaving a Bible in a public place and stealing a political banner.
In the north of the country, there is a special economic zone with a large marketplace. It is claimed that Russian and Chinese tourists stock up on North Korean weed by the kilogram. However, even if this were true, there is a BIG difference between how North Korea would treat a Chinese tourist and an American one.
What is the Truth About Marijuana Laws in North Korea?
Although it is not official, it seems likely that North Korea allows the growth of hemp. Troy Collings regularly visits the country as a tourist and says he has purchased hemp, but it doesn’t contain THC. It is primarily used as a substitute for tobacco. You can freely pick it, dry it, and sell it, but you won’t get high regardless of how much you smoke.
In fact, it seems as if the North Korean government officially sanctions the growth of hemp, which is then used to create goods such as cooking oil, towels, and noodles. North Korean hemp also focuses on male plants that don’t produce buds.
There is a Pyongyang Hemp Processing Factory that markets hemp products as environmentally friendly. One of the officials at the Factory said that while there are several types of hemp growing in North Korea, none of them are smoked legally.
It also seems likely that the ‘weed’ purchased from farmer’s markets is little more than uncured tobacco or herbs. According to Matthew Reichel of the Pyongyang Project, this mixture of herbs and tobacco is called ipdambae and resembles marijuana on a superficial level. However, it is NOT related to the Cannabis sativa plant. You could potentially receive a cerebral high from this substance due to the nicotine, but a bad headache is also likely if you use a lot.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana Laws in North Korea
It seems extremely unlikely that North Korea is a weed smoker’s paradise. When you consider the oppressive nature of the regime, it would be remarkable if weed – which is outlawed in many countries around the world – is widely available and completely legal.
The reality is that North Korea allows the growth of industrial hemp, which contains minimal THC and is used to make things. Then there is the local mixture of hemp and tobacco which looks like low-grade weed at first glance but is nothing of the sort. While bloggers and tourists claim the herb is widely available in North Korea, diplomats and tour guides say otherwise.
Of course, there is the slight possibility that the enmity between North Korea and the United States could have resulted in marijuana legalization in North Korea. Remember, the U.S. essentially foisted prohibition on other nations after World War II. As America is enemy #1 in North Korea’s eyes, it would hardly be a surprise if it refused to comply with U.S. wishes.
On the other hand, North Korea signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. As a result, the recreational use of cannabis is illegal. However, as we don’t know the full contents of the North Korean criminal code, it is impossible to say for sure.