Korean Peninsula Cannabis Industry 2019

SOUTH KOREA: In November 2018, South Korea’s Narcotics Control Act was amended, making use of medical cannabis legal. South Korea thus became the
first country in East Asia to legalize it for medicine.

Recreational cannabis, which is among S. Korea’s least popular drugs,
remains illegal.

Evidence suggests Koreans used hemp as far back as 3,000 BC. It likely reached Korea via China, according to interpretation of records relating to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung.

Known locally as ‘daema’ — hemp was used for rope, netting and in weaving the coarse, ivory-colored fabric called ‘sambe’ still made today. Seeds were used as laxatives. It grew in the wild and under cultivation. The Japanese, after conquering the peninsula in 1894, also promoted its cultivation. When sovereignty was restored, after WWII, the plant remained legal, but fell under loose restriction as a recreational drug in 1957 -- yet S. Korea during the 1960s reportedly had many marijuana smokers among celebrities and musicians.

It was still fully legal for industrial application until the puritanical father of modern S. Korea, Park Chung-hee (president 1961 - 79) banned it in 1976 under the Cannabis Control Act, which outlawed not only recreational use but strictly regulated all aspects of the hemp industry.

That was then, this is now: Korea is a leading global importer of hemp products, especially seed grain, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products.

As a legal matter, the Cannabis Control Act of 1976 (amended 2011, 2013 and 2016) remains in effect.

Therein cannabis is defined as: “the hemp plant (Cannabis Sativa L), the resin extracted therefrom, and all the products manufactured using the hemp plant or its resin as their raw materials.” Violators face prison sentences of up to five years and fines of up to 50 million won (US$44,300).

However, the law specifically excludes seeds, roots, mature stalks and “products manufactured using them”. Import and cultivation thus thrive. Recent estimates peg annual production of industrial hemp at around 14,000 tonnes, by and large utilized domestically. S. Korea is second only to China in hemp-fiber production. 

According to ITC trade figures, S. Korea trades a moderate quantity of raw or processed hemp (HS Code: 5302) internationally: from 2001 to 2017, imports averaged 28 tonnes, worth US$138,000, annually; exports only 3 tonnes, worth about US$40,000, annually.

Swelling demand for imported hemp products, however, is seen in the country’s booming health and beauty sectors. In 2017, Korea was the world’s third largest importer of CBD cannabis oils, worth US$176 million, or 6.6% of the global market (behind the US and Germany). Top suppliers were China, Vietnam, France, US and India.

It was reported last year that S. Korea would import US$31 million worth of CBD skin care products from Australia over the next three years.

Demand for seeds is voracious: nearly 10,000 kilograms from Canada sold out in less than an hour in November 2015 after being offered on a S. Korean home shopping channel. That prompted a US$3 million distribution deal between Korean firm Seoulution and Hempco, a hemp food company from Burnaby, British Columbia, the latter agreeing to supply 30 tonnes of hulled hemp seed a month for the next year.

In July 2018, Korea was first in East Asia to permit medical cannabis after the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety endorsed use of cannabis-based drugs Epidiolex, Marinol, Cesamet and Sativex for relief of epilepsy, symptoms of HIV/AIDS and cancer-related treatments. That was followed in November by the National Assembly’s vote to pass amendments to the Act on the Management of Narcotic Drugs allowing non-hallucinogenic dosages of medical marijuana.

Prescriptions are obtained via the Korea Orphan Drug Centre with a physician’s recommendation. The drugs thus far are imported.

NORTH KOREA: Information concerning the legal status of cannabis in North Korea is limited and conflicting. Some have called it a “weed-smoker’s
paradise” , others say that cannabis use is rare and certainly illegal.

NK News, which has a Website dedicated to North Korea, was reportedly
the source of the “paradise” story: the Website, however, has no record of any such story. It does carry a story about how former NBA basketball player, a friend of both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, was financed by a cryptocurrency called ‘Potcoin’ on his trip there in 2017. ‘Pot’ is a slang American term for ‘marijuana’, and the tokens are aimed at illicit dealers therein. It was not reported that marijuana played any part in Rodman’s trip.

One thing all agree on: hemp grows wild along streets and highways, and visitors report seeing hemp gardens around houses in Pyongyang. In consonance with that, a report from 2017 carried by UPI citing various sources said an order was issued early that year for each member of the North Korean Women’s Alliance to replace soybean fields with marijuana plots of 33 square meters. It was claimed that “hemp oil made for better cooking oil than soybean substitutes,” because “it has a lot of fat.”

They were expected to derive 22 pounds of cooking oil and 22 pounds of animal feed from their 33 square-meter plots. UPI’s reporter said a source in S. Korea scoffed at the cooking oil claim, saying it was in fact to extract fuel for the military’s aerial drones.

No references to medical cannabis or pending legislation were found. Hemp is apparently cultivated industrially, as in S. Korea, in the form of low-THC hemp.

Some reports say people may cultivate marijuana for personal use and that it is effectively legal or subject only to light penalties.

The first US soldier to defect to N. Korea after the Korean War was reportedly a frequent marijuana smoker who feared court-martial after being reprimanded several times for cannabis intoxication, and so fled. It was not reported whether, after defecting in 1962, he ever was able to smoke the stuff again.