Cannabis legal in North Korea? Don't believe the hype

Posted on October 12th, 2015 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , .

DPRKHere we go again. The Weed Blog was last week the latest to repeat the urban legend that cannabis is legal in North Korea. Earlier this year, the same click-bait nonsense was heard on a YouTube video produced by The mis-informed line goes like this (in the Weed Blog's gushy prose): "North Korea doesn’t consider marijuana a drug at all, and is completely legal in the country. [Sic] That's right. I can repeat that: marijuana is completely legal in the country of North Korea." You can repeat it all you want, but that doesn't make it true. It's an absurd irony that probably the most cannabis-unfriendly country on Earth has won a rep as a free zone where the stuff is legal. How did this all get started?

This rumor is largely the work of travel blogger Darmon Richter, who wrote an account in 2013, “On Smoking Weed in North Korea.” He claimed to have been taken along on a "staff outing" by his tour guides in the port city of Rason, where he found a "veritable mountain of marijuana" on sale in a market stall. He claimed that in North Korea, the stuff goes by the name of ip tambae, or "leaf tobacco," is legal, and widely smoked as a tobacco substitute.

The Guardian newspaper examined these claims and found that ip tambae, or ipdambae, is a "potpourri-like mixture of herbs and uncured tobacco leaves"—definitely not cannabis, which is indeed illegal in North Korea. The record was set straight by Matthew Reichel, director of the Pyongyang Project, which brings tourists to the ultra-closed country. "If you smoke that stuff it'll smell weird but it won't get you high," he told The Guardian. (Richter did a follow-up piece after The Guardian story, in which he conceded he'd got it wrong.)

Industrial hemp is grown, and feral hemp plants grow along the highways, as in Nebraska. But as every cornhusker knows, that stuff won't get you high either. Another thing North Korea has in common with the US Midwest, alas, is a plague of methamphetamine use. If personal users are being sent to the firing squad for meth rather than pot, that's only because there isn't any pot. And tourists (needless to say!) are closely controlled by handlers every minute of their time on the ground. Going to North Korea for the cannabis is a guaranteed bad trip.

A few years back, rubes got taken in by an Internet hoax, claiming that Sweden had legalized cannabis. It was posted all over Facebook by people who didn't bother to check out whether it was true or not. It was a total fabrication. But at least it was plausible. North Korea? Really? I'm tempted to ask what you guys have been smoking...

Graphic via The Weed Blog



North Korean ganja? Smells more like 'fake news' than dank buds

Bill Weinberg's picture  This is the story that refuses to die. High Times now makes note of reports that Chinese "tourists" are hopping across the border to North Korea, buying big bags of dirt-cheap weed, and selling it back home for a tidy profit. We are told: "According to reports from defectors, visitors and experts, North Korea either has no law against the sale and consumption of weed or, if it there is a law, it is largely unenforced."

Yeah, except all of this is based on unsubstantiated "reports." High Times cites Radio Free Asia and British tabloid The Sun. Both reports name the special economic zone of Rason as the place where these Chinese "tourists" are loading up. RFA cites unnamed "sources inside North Korea," who say the government encouraged cultivation of "yeoksam" (assumed to be cannabis) to address a cooking oil shortage in the 1980s. So it was grown for seed oil—not smoking. Even if this is really cannabis, it sounds to us like hemp—not marijuana. That is, a virtually THC-free industrial crop. And we all know there is plenty of that in North Korea. Otherwise, how would the "tourists" be getting it across the border into China? That has got to be one of the most tightly controlled borders on Earth, and while industrial hemp is legal in China, HT notes that marijuana most definitely is not.

The Sun goes a sleazy one better, sporting a photo of a phat, resinous indica plant—but it's just a Getty file photo, obviously not taken in North Korea. And The Sun's source? It links back to the same thinly-sourced RFA story. The usual Internet shell game.

Whatever these Chinese tourists think they are buying, or whatever they try to pass the herb off as to their own buyers back home in China, we doubt very much it contains any THC whatsoever. And Google brings back little information on "Yeoksam," except that there is a neighborhood of that name in Seoul, South Korea. (We'll bet it's the equivalent of Hempstead, Long Island.)

At least HT does try to discourage would-be cannabis tourists from visting the DPRK to get high, pointing to the complete lack of political freedom there. But we continue to be from Missouri on this story. If yeoksam is cannabis at all, it is almost certainly rope, not dope.
Comment by Bill Weinberg on Dec 16th, 2016 at 6:08 am

Damon Richter trying to pull a fast one?

Bill Weinberg's picture The URL for the page where he admits he got it wrong about cannabis in North Korea now resolves to the page where he made the claim in the first place, and the page acknowledging the goof seems to have been removed from his website. However, we found it on the Wayback Machine, and it reads:

NB. Since this piece was originally posted, new information has come to my attention regarding the legal status of cannabis in North Korea. I have now seen enough evidence to clearly suggest that cannabis is not, in fact, legal to purchase there. Please bear that in mind as you read this report. For further explanation, follow the link at the bottom of this post.

The indicated link goes to a page (also seemingly gone from the site but available on the Wayback Machine), which links to multiple sources on the question and states flatly: "I’m happy to bow down to superior knowledge, and accept what the experts are telling me: Cannabis is not legal in North Korea."

Why has this been removed from your website, Damon?

We want to know.
Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jun 16th, 2017 at 1:43 pm

Richter responds on North Korean pot question

Bill Weinberg's picture  I just had an exchange with Darmon Richter on Twitter, in which he points out that the page still on his site about pot in North Korea is actually an updated version, in which he says he's "since retracted" the claim that cannabis is legal in the DPRK—although still hedging that "there seems to be doubt in some quarters as to the actual law regarding the plant’s use."
Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jun 16th, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Darmon Richter statement on North Korean pot claims

Bill Weinberg's picture Contacted via Twitter, Darmon Richter offers the following statement on the controversy:

When I visited Rason, North Korea, back in 2013, the group I was with bought and smoked a leafy substance which we believed to be a product of the cannabis plant. I still believe that, personally, though the THC level was pretty minimal at best. Looking back at the incident now, I’d be prepared to believe it was some form of ditch-weed or feral hemp. Shortly before my visit however, I had read an article on VICE News that explained how cannabis was legal in North Korea… and at the time, I quickly jumped to that same conclusion myself.

That’s when my article went viral and suddenly my anonymous little backwater blog, mostly written for a few friends back home, was being cited in news sources around the world. When experts were brought in to explain how weed is absolutely not legal in North Korea, I retracted my former assumption immediately… but it was too late. Unfortunately, my mistake found its way into this never-ending urban myth which continues to insist, against all evidence, that weed is perfectly legal in North Korea.
Comment by Bill Weinberg on Jun 17th, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Who's new

  • Baba Israel
  • Karr Young
  • John Veit
  • YosephLeib
  • Peter Gorman