North Korea Has Its Own View On A Lot Of Things, Including Marijuana

In South Korea, any activity relating to illicit drugs is strictly prohibited by the law. Depending on the quantity, the sentence for possession and trafficking of marijuana ranges from one year to life in prison. As a result, the use of cannabis or other drugs, while still existent, is largely stigmatized among the population and particularly among the youngsters. Videogames, for which heavy restrictions are already under consideration, are rather their fix.

Meanwhile, across the border, her Northern and shady Korean cousin unexpectedly reveals a completely different attitude towards those that we rest of the world refer to as “illicit drugs”. Western visitors in North Korea recount stories of marijuana plants growing spontaneously in the streets or cultivated in large privately owned fields. Some, as British blogger Darmon Richter documents, even managed to buy plastic bags full of weed in local markets where, for less than a dollar, the stuff is legally sold among other veggies and spices. Needless to say, smoking up is a common activity that doesn’t bother anyone. In fact, as the smell in the streets suggests, North Koreans seem to enjoy lighting one up every now and then.

This being said, we have no official confirmation regarding the legal status of marijuana in North Korea. It would appear clear that cultivation, use and sale are allowed, yet what we know about the legal system of the most hermetic country in the world is not sufficient to provide certain information. However, it is possible that, because of the political—and moral—distance of North Korea to the rest of world, they have simply never contemplated the criminalization of weed. And why should they?

Despite being officially part of the UN, the regime of Pyongyang doesn’t seem to care much about the ideological and political trends in the rest of the world, let alone the warnings of the international community. Since the rise of the state in 1948, while the US-led propaganda to demonize marijuana began to be tacitly embraced by nearly all the world’s states, North Korean dictators have been busy labeling as “absurd” the politics and lifestyle in the West. Hence, “banning pot? Not a chance! What a backward and unjustifiable decision”, they must have thought with an unusual degree of diplomacy.

Away from the cultural influence of Western TV and Snoop Dog, it’s possible that, in North Korea, all this time marijuana has actually been regarded as the powerful and beneficial plant that it is, and nothing more. As the national health system is believed to be very ill-equipped and many common prescription drugs are unavailable, marijuana may indeed represent an alternative and valid herbal remedy. According to recent reports, after all, North Koreans don’t smoke weed to get high and rap about it, they rather “do it as a way to relax and soothe tight or sore muscles” after a hard day’s work. In a country where the population is subject to extended hours of hard manual labor in order to meet often unrealistic production goals, I dare anyone to say weed makes you lazy and unproductive—if anything, from this point of view, it helps you.

Far from wanting to praise the same despotic regime that in the recent past has also allegedly produced and exported methamphetamine, the case of North Korea is, however, a curious and interesting one.  While in the near South Korea, for example, the strict laws regarding marijuana have contributed to the stigmatization of a phenomenon that has always existed—and consequently to the scientific denial of its potential benefits—, in the land of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un weed is probably regarded to be as dangerous as a cup of tea. Yet, the population doesn’t seem to have gone mad as many anti-marijuana advocates would have predicted. We do hear of tyrannical dictators and authoritarian practices, such as forced labor and oppression of free speech, but I doubt they have anything to do with the use of cannabis. In North Korea, where there is no room for the hypocritical rules of the so called civilized world, weed is probably just a means for the working class to alleviate the real problems that are posed by the regime every day.