Here’s the Deal with Pot in North Korea

Photo by Vortex Farmacy.

In 1962, American soldier Allen Abshier, stationed in South Korea, defected to the ironically-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—AKA (the completely non-democratic) North Korea—in order to avoid court-martial charges, after having been caught smoking marijuana five or six times. Presumably, he was allowed to smoke freely in the country where he sought asylum.

It is surprising that a regime as diabolically punishing as the one that arrested and detained college student Otto Warmbier, for allegedly stealing a poster from his hotel room while on vacation, would be so open about cannabis. (Tragically, after 17 months in prison, Otto Warmbier succumbed to injuries sustained in captivity and died a few days after his release.)

There are conflicting reports on the legal status of cannabis in North Korea. Multiple reports from defectors and tourists claim there is no law regarding the possession of cannabis in North Korea, or, if there is, it is mostly unenforced. As a result, it is not classified as a drug. However, other reports claim that cannabis is illegal.

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 misconception and that marijuana is illegal there.

According to South Korean-born grad student Richard Kim, “It’s actually called ‘daemacho,’ and it’s hella illegal in both Koreas.”

VICE News, reported in 2013 that cannabis was widely used and tolerated in North Korea, smoked as ip tambae (잎담배, “leaf tobacco”) by the lower classes, as a cheap alternative to cigarettes, and to relax after a day of labor. 

However, a reply by journalist Keegan Hamilton, in a 2014 article in the Guardian, sought to debunk these as rumors. He cited Matthew Reichel of the Pyongyang Project, who notes that ip tambae is actually a mixture of herbs and tobacco, superficially resembling cannabis, but unrelated.

According to at least one tourist report, their group purchased marijuana in Rason’s indoor marketplace, in the Rason special economic zone in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. They were then able to roll it and smoke it right out in the open, and eventually even share spliffs with their stone-faced “minders.”

Detractors would argue that this form of cannabis is some kind of ditch-weed, or feral hemp, which Wikipedia defines as “wild-growing cannabis generally descended from industrial hemp plants previously cultivated for fibre, with low or negligible amounts of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).”

Tour operators working in the country have also confirmed that such plants can be bought in Rason.

While some North Koreans may cultivate personal amounts of psychoactive cannabis in their home gardens, its use is not condoned; though, it is also unlikely to be punished severely. This seems directly at odds with the fact that entire families are reported to be hauled off and punished for a minor infraction committed by one family member.

Considering the United Nations Security Council passed a unanimous resolution on Saturday, which imposed new sanctions on North Korea that target North Korea’s primary exports, including coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood, perhaps it’s time the isolated regime explores cultivating another one of its potential primary exports—pot.

According to Sokeel Park, leader of the California-based NGO Liberty in North Koreait is alleged that cannabis has been sold abroad as a way to boost foreign revenues for quite some time.

Despite China voting with the U.S. to sanction North Korea, Chinese tourists visiting neighboring North Korea are reportedly buying large quantities of bargain bags of herb, then selling it for a decent profit upon returning home to China, where cannabis is highly illegal and drug laws are harshly enforced.

Adding tougher sanctions was not possible, with China opposing more severe restrictions that might have been urged by Washington. North Korea is still allowed to receive oil.

According to Radio Free Asia, “[Former leader] Kim Il-sung extensively encouraged the cultivation of yeoksam, the colloquial term for marijuana, meaning “the special plant” to solve a cooking oil shortage in the early 1980s.”

An anonymous North Korean source has said that while Kim Jong-un’s regime cracks down on methamphetamines, it does not consider marijuana to be a drug.

Don’t get too excited about going there, though.

As a result of the tragic and untimely death of Otto Warmbier, the Unites States has issued a travel embargo to North Korea. The ban will take effect on September 1, 2017.

Therefore, it seems an unattainable destination for any intrepid pot tourist, which is probably for the best.

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