For years, there have been rumours 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 offence 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 specialises in North Korean travel, told the AP that prospective visitors often ask what to expect.
“We apologise, 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 a brief entry on “Cannabis in North Korea.”
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 $US3 a pound. (The going rate in Colorado, where the drug has been legal since 2012, is about $US1,471 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.”
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