is weed legal in north korea

North Korea has been branded as a ‘weed-smoker’s paradise’ — but the truth is more complicated

For years, there have been rumors 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 offense 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 specializes in North Korean travel, told the AP that prospective visitors often ask what to expect.

“We apologize, 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 Wikipedia.

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 $3 a pound. (The going rate in Colorado, where the drug has been legal since 2012, is about $1,471 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.”

Rumors are flying that North Korea is home to a pot-friendly regime, but we know very little about drug law there.

North Korea Smokes Weed Every Day, Explaining a Lot

North Korea, the most tight-lipped, conservative, and controlling country in the world is also a weed-smoker’s paradise. Despite the government’s deadly serious stance on the use and distribution of hard drugs like crystal meth (which has a notorious legacy in the country), marijuana is reportedly not considered a drug. As a result, it’s the discerning North Korean gentleman’s roll-up of choice, suggesting that, for weed smokers at least, North Korea might just be paradise after all.

NK NEWS receives regular reports from visitors returning from North Korea, who tell us of marijuana plants growing freely along the roadsides, from the northern port town of Chongjin, right down to the streets of Pyongyang, where it is smoked freely and its sweet scent often catches your nostrils unannounced. Our sources are people we know who work inside North Korea and make regular trips in and out of the country.

There is no taboo around pot smoking in the country—many residents know the drug exists and have smoked it. In North Korea, the drug goes by the name of ip tambae, or “leaf tobacco.” It is reported to be especially popular amongst young soldiers in the North Korean military. Rather than getting hooked on tar and nicotine like servicemen in the West, they are able to unwind by lighting up a king-sized bone during down time on the military beat.

Despite the fact the government doesn’t crack down on the use of marijuana (or opium) and its prevalence among the common people, traveling weed enthusiasts eager to sample some NK bud will likely be disappointed. If a Western tourist asks his or her guide where is the best place to get the “special plant,” as it is euphemistically referred to, the guide will most likely eschew the question. Most of them are educated enough in Western legal attitudes toward marijuana to not feel the need to promote anything that might attract negative press. Then again, bring them a bottle of Hennessy and they might be more willing to help you out.

The reasons for smoking weed in North Korea differ from America. In North Korea, you don’t smoke just to get high and laugh at your own hand, you do it to save money and as a break from the ubiquitous cheap local cigarettes. In the black markets of North Korea, marijuana is commonly sold at a cheap price and is easily obtainable. Therefore, the drug is especially popular among the lower classes of North Korean society. After a day of hard manual labor, it is common for North Korean workers to smoke marijuana as a way to relax and soothe tight or sore muscles.

One of the great bits of North Korean mythology we’ve all heard a million times is that citizens may not fold their newspapers, lest they accidentally fold a picture of their leaders. But luckily not every page features those powerful, attention-seeking bossmen, so all the paper’s more easily recyclable parts (sports, weather, TV listings) end up being used to roll up tobacco and marijuana.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper is a favorite rolling paper among many North Korean smokers. It is cut up into squares, then rolled into small, cone-shaped spliffs. A source confirmed to NK NEWS that they had found a half-lit joint on the ground in a rural area of the country with the Rodong Sinmun used as rolling paper. The same source noted that, tragically, the weed in North Korea isn’t very strong.

Although weed grows naturally on the Korean peninsula, it is cultivated more formally in some areas. The herb is often grown in the private gardens of North Koreans. An American who travels to North Korea every year commented on Reddit, “We came to a garden one day and took one look and said, ‘that is weed!’ We went over and sure enough they were growing marijuana. I had heard it is used for medicine but finding it was interesting.”

Reports of marijuana use date back to the formation of the nation as it exists today. After the Korean War, US soldiers commonly plucked the herb from the DMZ areas near the North Korean border and smoked it. Stories of tents being hot boxed by tired fighters is a common recollection in the folklore of the difficult era.

Meanwhile back in the West, with the recent legalization of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado, some Americans are clamoring for legalization of the herb across the whole country. While this remains a controversial issue, the fact that marijuana appears to be commonly used in North Korea as a casual, cheap escape from an otherwise tightly controlled society suggests that for all the other worries they have to put up with, they do enjoy at least one perk denied to people like me living here in the land of the free.

Follow NK NEWS on Twitter @nknewsorg

Get a personalized roundup of VICE’s best stories in your inbox.

By signing up to the VICE newsletter you agree to receive electronic communications from VICE that may sometimes include advertisements or sponsored content.

North Korea, the most tight-lipped, conservative, and controlling country in the world is also a weed-smoker's paradise.