Given that North Korea is most associated with nebulous threats of nuclear attacks, rampant poverty, and a dictatorship commanded by a baby-faced basketball fan, it’d be safe to assume that the DPRK’s citizens aren’t allowed much, if any, cheap recreation. However, according to a blog by freelancer Darmon Richter, allowed entry into a packed North Korean marketplace, locals have at least one option: marijuana.
“We were just walking past the tobacco sellers when we spotted another stall ahead… It turned out to be exactly what we first suspected: a veritable mountain of marijuana.”
“In the name of scientific enquiry [sic], it seemed appropriate to buy some… and the little old ladies running the stall were happy to load us up with plastic bags full of the stuff, charging us roughly £0.50 each.”
In order to further test the boundaries, the journalist and his Korean escorts rolled a joint and smoked it in the middle of the market without repercussions. As it happens, while North Korea is attempting – in its typically brutal fashion – to eliminate a rampant crystal meth epidemic, the government doesn’t appear to consider marijuana a drug at all. In fact, “it’s often promoted as a natural and healthy way to relax.” While the North Koreans may have access to cannabis, it is not clear what the average level of potency might be, or whether the North Koreans have access to cannabis oils and concentrates, much less the glass rigs and devices commonly used with cannabis concentrates in the West.
As for substances North Korea does consider “drugs,” primarily meth, the DPRK has a strict no-tolerance policy that makes mandatory sentences sound like ice cream parties. In 2010, NKRadio.org reported that signs were posted nationwide reading, “Any drug users will face a firing squad should they be caught.” However, this law doesn’t apply to opium, either, also tightly woven into North Korean culture. From the same article:
“[The DPRK] encouraged opium farms on abandoned land in order to earn foreign currency… Many gardeners grow opium in their own gardens to be used as a treatment for colitis or diarrhea.”
The common thread: Opium, certainly more dangerous than marijuana, nevertheless carries the potential for profit, and both drugs have medicinal reputations among the North Korean populace. Meth, on the other hand, is purely destructive, and its production holds no economic value for the DPRK. On the contrary, it turns potential workers and soldiers into unstable meth-heads, only useful for obsessively cooking their next batch. While North Korea’s aims and methods are indisputably inhumane, it can be said their lax attitude toward cannabis is certainly practical.