North Korea’s views on cannabis are not well documented, mostly due to lack of access and the secretive nature of the country. It’s very difficult to gain entry into the Hermit Kingdom; and once inside, one must adhere to a long list of strict (and sometimes unusual) rules.
Surprisingly, the country has developed a reputation for tolerating cannabis consumption. Previous accounts of tourists who visited the isolated location helped paint a clear picture of the local cannabis scene. In 2012, an American consultant claimed to have witnessed citizens growing cannabis in small gardens, possibly for personal or medicinal use.
Perhaps the most interesting account comes from a Bulgarian writer (based in England), Darmon Richter, who went on a casual vacation to North Korea. He was able to roll up at a restaurant after a meal without intervention from his tour guide or local police. Richter was also able to buy a grocery bag full of cannabis for about 80 cents at a market. He has plenty of pictures to prove his claims, which are currently live on The Bohemian Blog.
There’s only one problem with the photos: the cannabis he purchased looked extremely dry and leafy, closely resembling industrial hemp. The resilient plant is known to contain very low amounts of THC and is often loosely referred to as cannabis.
This distinction matters because hemp is legal in North Korea, under a state sanction. According to Troy Collings, who oversees a travel agency that specializes in bringing foreigners into the Hermit Kingdom, it is possible to buy hemp as a cost-effective alternative to tobacco. This would explain why Richter was able to openly light up in public.
“I’ve seen and even purchased hemp, but it doesn’t contain any THC and is just sold as a cheap substitute for tobacco,” said Collings in an email. “It grows wild in the mountainous regions of the North and people pick it, dry it and sell it in the markets, but it doesn’t get you high no matter how much you smoke.”
It is important to consider that rolling your own cigarette in Asia is common practice. Compared to purchasing a pack of rolled cigarettes, buying the components separately and manually rolling your own is considered to be cheaper for habitual tobacco smokers.
Hemp is used by local businesses in the country to produce clothes, cooking oil and military uniforms. This explains why the herb was being sold in mass quantities at the market.
As for cannabis with high THC content that is widely used for recreational purposes, the plant is considered to be illegal in North Korea – according to Torkel Stiernlof, a Swedish diplomat living in the country.
“There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here,” explained Stiernlof during an interview with the Associated Press. “One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offense to smoke it.”
This statement is more in line with the country’s conservative stance on international culture and strict practices related to preserving local traditions.
So there you have it. Like most Asian countries, North Korea still has a long way to go in renewing its outdated cannabis laws to suit the needs of local patients.
This post was originally published on May 13, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.