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Bong arm of the law: South Korea says it will arrest citizens who smoke weed in Canada

Seoul reminds 23,000 South Korean students in Canada that domestic law applies to them no matter where they are

Canada has legalised cannabis but South Koreans thinking of returning home have been warned. Photograph: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

Canada has legalised cannabis but South Koreans thinking of returning home have been warned. Photograph: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 23 Oct 2018 19.20 BST

For South Koreans in Canada, the police in their home country have no problem harshing their mellow.

Canada became the second country in the world to legalise recreational marijuana last week, but for South Koreans hoping to try the drug, their hopes have just gone up in smoke. Police in South Korea have repeatedly told their citizens not to partake in this newfound freedom, with the latest warning coming this week.

“Weed smokers will be punished according to the Korean law, even if they did so in countries where smoking marijuana is legal. There won’t be an exception,” said Yoon Se-jin, head of the narcotics crime investigation division at Gyeonggi Nambu provincial police agency, according to the Korea Times.

South Korean law is based on the concept that laws made in Seoul still apply to citizens anywhere in the world, and violations, even while abroad, can technically lead to punishment when they return home. Those who smoke weed could face up to five years in prison.

South Korea strictly enforces drugs laws even for small amounts, and celebrities caught smoking weed are often paraded in front of media for apology tours. Officials work to project an image of a “drug-free nation” and only about 12,000 drug arrests were made in 2015 in a country of more than 50 million people.

However, details on how police would test those returning from Canada remain hazy. Experts suggested enforcement would focus more on drug traffickers than casual users.

“South Korea can’t screen everyone who visited a foreign country, but the police maintain a blacklist that leads to certain individuals being supervised,” said Lee Chang-Hoon, a professor in the department of police administration at Hannam University in Daejeon. “But the police are more concerned with the transportation of marijuana into South Korea, and the police messaging shows they are anxious about tackling this issue in the near future.”

Judges in South Korea have a significant amount of discretion and will likely assess the crimes individually, Lee added, “especially when marijuana is prescribed of medical reasons”.

There are about 23,000 South Korean students in Canada, according to statistics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Marijuana has a long history of use in making hemp fabric in South Korea and the plant was banned only in 1976 under dictator Park Chung-hee. Before prohibition only “Indian marijuana” was labelled as a narcotic and the drug was common in music and artistic circles in the 1960s and 1970s, where many took to “happy smoke”, as it was commonly called at the time, for inspiration.

Seoul reminds 23,000 South Korean students in Canada that domestic law applies to them no matter where they are

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South Korea

Legislation History

On Nov. 23, 2018, South Korea became the first East Asian country to legalize cannabis-based medical products, albeit with heavy regulation.

The South Korean National Assembly approved amendments to the Narcotic Drug Management Act to allow patients with diseases documented to be alleviated through the use of medical cannabis to have legal access to a few cannabis products. The decision reversed decades of strict prohibitions and heavy sentences against cannabis use.

South Korea criminalized cannabis along with poppies, opium, and cocaine in 1957, although at the time the ban applied only to Indian-grown marijuana, allowing the Korean market of cannabis to grow. In the 1960s, cannabis use rose. The government began cracking down on smokers in the 1970s. In 1976, the Cannabis Control Act singled out marijuana and outlawed smoking and possession of all cannabis.

Since then, attempts to reform the drug laws have fallen short. However, in January 2018, Shin Chang-hyun, of the Democratic Party, introduced the new legislation.

In part, the translated revision said that while it is necessary to regulate the hallucinogenic and addictive effects of hemp, certain medicinal use should be considered to be allowed.

Medical Cannabis

A few cannabis products are now legal.

The only qualifying conditions as of March 2019 are two forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes. The only currently allowed product was Epidiolex , an FDA-approved cannabidiol.

However, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said in July 2018 it would permit Epidiolex, Marinol , and Cesamet for weight loss or nausea from HIV/AIDS and cancer-related treatments, and Sativex for symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Patients must apply to the government with a doctor’s prescription, medical records, and a qualifying condition to be approved by the government on a case-by-case basis. Then they may order online through the Korea Orphan Drug Center, a government organization that arranges access to rare medicines. The medicine must be picked up at the center’s offices in Seoul. Those outside the region must travel.

Adult-Use Cannabis

South Korea has a history of strict laws and enforcement of marijuana offenses and has no provisions to allow adult-use cannabis. Smokers can face five years in prison and fines of more than $40,000, or more than $50 million won. The government has said it will arrest citizens for using marijuana in Canada and other places where recreational cannabis is legal.

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