When Chloe Kim blasted off the halfpipe for the second 1080 of her Olympic gold medal run, she was momentarily the highest person at Phoenix Snow Park. But I’m pretty sure the marijuana-infused chocolate bar I’d eaten on the train ride to Pyeongchang made me the second highest.
I was in South Korea for the winter Olympics mostly because opportunity knocked. A close friend of mine was working on the games and offered me the extra bed in his hotel room. My friend had only two requests: a couple of fancy bricks of cheese (his cheese-addicted boss felt the Korean cheese selection sub-par), and any amount of weed I could get my hands on.
My friend was a seasoned international pot smoker, but South Korea was the first place he’d been sent where he could simply not find a joint to save his life. The Koreans are test-your-hair-follicle levels of serious about not toking up. The only person who’d offered to sell him some hyptochronalite had quoted him $200— a gram. So when I showed up at my friend’s hotel a week after the opening ceremonies, I had about five hundred dollars worth of edibles and vaporizers with me.
For obvious reasons, I can’t go into details about how I arranged this; I don’t need Jeff Sessions or the South Korean police knocking on my door. Suffice to say, we technically risked deportation at best, jail time at worst. Which sounds scary. But I spent much of my twenties theoretically risking similar punishments in states like Indiana, Arizona, and Iowa. In fact, if you want to get technical about it, every time we light up in the united states, we hypothetically risk up to a year of federal incarceration. Anyway, that’s how I convinced myself. But, for the record, such behavior is discouraged by both High Times and my mother.
Call me bold, stupid, or lucky; I did not get deported or spend time in a Korean jail. I did throw out three perfectly good gummy bears when I was convinced I was being followed by secret police on a solo trip to Seoul (for a legendary noodle bar in a bus station that serves the best soup I’ve ever had,) but that’s par for the course with me and edibles. I had no trouble with the law or anyone else. On the contrary: I ended up being the most popular guy at the Olympics.
It started on a bus ride from the high-speed train station to the PeyongChang Mountain Cluster to watch my first ever live Olympic event. I piled into a shuttle, good and toasty from a vape hit, and sat alongside a pack of drunken Canadians. I sat there stonily as I listened to these four guys dressed in maple-leaf emblazoned red and white suits discuss in broad terms the things they liked about South Korea (Korean BBQ, Soju, noodle soups,) and the things they disliked about the Olympic experience (shuttle busses, long lines, the cost of beer). It was the end of their trip, and they agreed that what they would most look forward to back home was packing a fat bowl and watching the curling finals on TV.
They became my first trading partners.
I approached them on the trudge up a large hill towards the Alpensia Cross Country Skiing Center (fun fact: cross-country skiing is the cheapest ticket at the Olympics). I offered them all a hit off my pen— in the cold air, our vape breath looked like any other steam exhalation. I eschewed any payment but they insisted upon buying me two beers and the most expensive hot dog ever served. I sat and drank with them as we watched my first ever Olympic event: the skiathlon, a ninety-minute event during which you see about twelve minutes of actual cross-country skiing. As the numbing cold thinned the crowd, I roared alongside the Canadians as we rooted home a trio of red-and-white jumpsuited athletes.
It turned out that they were Norwegian, not Canadian, but what do you expect from a bunch of stoned, frozen, first-time cross-country watchers? We parted ways after another toke— they seemed high enough to skip the plane ride and simply float across the Pacific.
This opened the floodgates for me. I started looking out for potential marijuana refugees wherever I could. I traded vape hits for beer and food almost every day. I traded a handful of gummy bears for a ride in some German guy’s car after I missed the last shuttle bus leaving the Olympic Sliding Center.
At the Gangneung Coastal Cluster, four girls from New Jersey made one of their boyfriends trade me his ticket to Speed Skating in exchange for a chocolate bar. I gave him a gummy bear to improve his waiting experience and then sat next to his girlfriend— we cheered for all the falls for about three hours and are now Facebook friends. About the only people I failed to trade with were Kim Jong Un’s sister and the North Korean cheerleaders.
The coup de grace came the day when I saw Chloe Kim win her gold medal. For the relatively hefty price of two full chocolate bars and everything left in one of the vapes, I was given the loan of a media lanyard for a day. I got into four Olympic events, ate lunch at the commissary of a major television network, used their (heated!) portable restroom, and convinced a few especially drunk old British men that I was the play-by-play announcer for the luge enjoying a day off. I got to see Chloe and Sean White post the highest halfpipe scores of their respective genders, which was as patriotic as I’ve felt since the elections in 2012 while being as stoned in public as I’ve felt since the Lollapalooza of 2012.
Being the Johnny Appleweed of the Korean peninsula was an incredible way to experience the beauty of South Korea, the culture of Seoul, and the spectacle of global competition. But my favorite part of the experience was tapping into the international pot community that lurked in the shadows; knowing winks and whispered trades are disappearing in the states. As pot culture becomes more mainstream, we’ve lost that feeling of collaborative chicanery, of honor amongst thieves.
I would never suggest things were better when pot was more illegal— no fun cultural element is worth the cost of all the people wrongly jailed under absurd anti-pot laws— but my time in South Korea made me realize this part of pot subculture is basically extinct in our country. I found it again for a moment in South Korea, amongst the ice dancers and the skeleton riders, and it reminded me both how far we’ve come, how far there still is to go, and what an odd experience it is to be caught between the past and the future.