South Korea is known for its strict anti-cannabis laws, but did you know that they apply to its citizens even when they are outside the country? That’s right, South Koreans can face legal consequences for using cannabis in countries where it is legal, such as Canada and some U.S. states.
This is because of the country’s Cannabis Control Act, which was passed in 1976 by the military dictator President Park Chung-hee. The law prohibits any form of cannabis use, possession, cultivation, or trafficking, and gives the authorities the power to prosecute South Koreans for violating it anywhere in the world.
The law is based on the perception of cannabis as a serious crime and a threat to the nation’s security and morality. “In the 1970s, smoking marijuana was a culture among musicians and intellectuals who spoke out against the regime,” said Park Jin-sil, an attorney specializing in drug cases. “Whether someone did meth, propofol or marijuana, they’re all considered the same junkies and criminals to most Koreans,” she added.
The punishment for breaking the law is severe. A violation is punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 50 million won, about $42,556 USD (as of November, 2021). The authorities can also conduct random drug tests on South Koreans returning from abroad, and use their hair samples to detect cannabis use up to three months prior.
The law has been enforced more strictly in recent years, especially after Canada legalized cannabis in 2018. South Korean law enforcement officials have repeatedly warned their citizens that they are subject to their country’s criminal code no matter where they are in the world and advised them to refrain from using cannabis abroad.
“Weed smokers will be punished according to the Korean law, even if they did so in countries where smoking marijuana is legal,” Yoon Se-jin, head of the Narcotics Crime Investigation Division at the Gyeonggi Nambu provincial police agency, told the Korea Times. “There won’t be an exception.”
The South Korean embassy in Canada also posted a tweet on the eve of October 17, 2018, asking South Koreans to “please take care not to commit an illegal act and be punished”. According to Canada’s latest census data, there are roughly 23,000 South Korean students studying in Canadian schools and universities. In 2017, there were 286,000 visitors to Canada from South Korea, setting a new record and topping 2016’s record by 17 percent.
The law also affects South Koreans living in the U.S., where 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis use as of 2021. According to 2010 U.S. census data, there were 1.8 million people of South Korean descent living in the United States, though many are U.S. citizens and therefore able to consume cannabis legally in their state.
However, some South Koreans have been arrested and deported for using cannabis in the U.S., even if they had a valid medical prescription. For example, in 2015, a South Korean student was arrested in Colorado for possessing 28 grams of cannabis, which was legal under the state law but not under the federal law. He was later deported and banned from entering the U.S. for five years.
The Cannabis Control Act has been criticized by some human rights activists and cannabis advocates, who argue that it violates the principle of territoriality and sovereignty, and that it is outdated and ineffective. They also point out that South Korea has a thriving industrial hemp market, which produces hemp fiber, oil, and seeds for various purposes. Hemp is a variety of cannabis that contains very low levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis.
However, the South Korean government has shown no signs of changing its stance on cannabis, and has maintained that it is a harmful substance that can lead to addiction and mental disorders. It has also warned that cannabis use can damage the country’s reputation and international relations.
Therefore, South Koreans who want to enjoy cannabis legally will have to wait until they renounce their citizenship or until their country reforms its cannabis laws. Until then, they will have to abide by the Cannabis Control Act, or risk facing harsh penalties.