While cannabis has played a critical function in the lives of South Koreans throughout the country’s history, today it’s considered extremely taboo and recreational use is illegal.
Marijuana laws in South Korea: a brief overview
South Korea first enacted laws against smoking cannabis back in 1957 with the passing of the 1957 Narcotics Act. The act was passed against the use of Indian grown marijuana as well as a number of other hard drugs, but it did not include the use of South Korean grown marijuana.
Throughout the 60s and 70’s, during the hippie years, usage of South Korean weed flourished throughout the country. To deal with the mounting social issues connected with drug addiction, in 1976 the South Korean government passed the Cannabis Control Act banning the use of all cannabis types in South Korea.
In 2018, like many other countries to do so that year, the South Korean government passed legislation legalizing the use of medical marijuana, albeit under a strict set of guidelines and regulations. South Korea was the first country in East Asia to legalize cannabis for medical purposes.
Marijuana laws in South Korea: fines and punishments
According to South Korean law, the police are allowed to search you or test your hair follicles or urine for drug use anywhere at any time. As a matter of fact, the Korean DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) has been known to enter clubs and perform random drug searches.
Found guilty? You’re liable to serve up to five years in prison as well as face a fine of 50 million won, about $42,500 USD.
South Koreans themselves are actually subject to their country’s laws no matter where in the world they’re located. In 2018, when the Canadian government legalized the use of cannabis, the South Korean police sent out a severe warning to its 23,000 students studying in Canada letting them know if they used weed in Canada, they would face South Korean prosecution.
As Yoon Se-jin, head of the narcotics crime investigation division at Gyeonggi Nambu provincial police agency proclaimed, “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.”
How do South Koreans view marijuana?
Cannabis once played an important role in everyday life in South Korea, with people in the country making rope, clothing and burial shrouds from hemp. South Koreans also used cannabis to treat constipation, aches, and muscle pains.
Today, however, due to draconian government policies, the use of weed is extremely taboo. As a matter of fact, many famous entertainers and artists caught using the substance faced a huge fall in their career success.
In the 1970s the South Korean government made a point of publicly prosecuting and shaming Kim Kye-hoon, better known by his rap name, Crown J, and singer-songwriter Psy. Their careers in turn, paid the price. In more modern times, the same is true of T.O.P. a South careen star charged for possession and usage of marijuana. His public reputation tanked and his record label YG Entertainment received the notorious name Yak Guk (Hangul: 약국) Entertainment, or “the drugstore.”
Medical marijuana in South Korea
There are currently four marijuana-based medications approved by the South Korean government:
Applications for use must be submitted to the Korea Orphan Drug Center. Prescriptions are assessed and granted on a case by case basis. Drug pickup is available from Seoul only – no matter where in South Korea the patient resides.