Cannabis tourism is already big business in U.S. states where weed is legal for adults. And in Canada, which on October 17 became the first G7 nation and just the second country in the world to legalize adult-use cannabis, officials expect the opening of retail markets to attract a slew of new visitors eager to enjoy Canada’s newly legal amenities. But for residents and travelers from South Korea, Canada’s historic legalization and the expansion of non-medical access in the United States might as well have not happened at all. And that’s because, for South Korean nationals, there’s nowhere on Earth where weed is legal.
For South Koreans, Their Country’s Pot Ban Spans The Globe
Since at least 1957, South Korea has taken a strong, prohibitionist stance against cannabis. Today, no form of cannabis use is legal there, including medical. South Korea does have a thriving industrial hemp market, however, one with roots dating back to 3000 BCE. But today, the country’s Cannabis Control Act, passed in 1976 by the military dictator President Park Chung-hee, remains not only the law of the land, but of the entire world—for South Korean nationals, at least. And after Canada’s Cannabis Act come into effect last week, South Korean law enforcement officials took the opportunity to remind those abroad of that fact.
“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.”
Yoon’s statement this week is just the latest in a series of admonitions from Korean state officials. On the eve of October 17, for example, the South Korean embassy in Canada posted a tweet 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.
Will South Korea’s Worldwide Cannabis Ban Impact Cannabis Sales?
And it’s not just in Canada that South Koreans will miss out on legal cannabis. While Korean officials have been focusing on Canada, the law also holds anywhere else weed is legal, including the U.S. 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. Getting a sense of Korean nationals living, studying and working in the United States is more difficult. But according to a February report, 1.5 million visitors from South Korea arrived in the U.S. between January and August 2017.
Those numbers could represent a large number of would-be cannabis consumers. Or, South Korea’s worldwide weed ban might hardly affect them at all. Even today, cannabis is still a relatively unpopular drug in South Korea. One 2016 investigation revealed that cannabis use, despite being on the rise, is still less popular than even hard drugs like methamphetamine. In 2015, police in Korea arrested nearly 12,000 people for drug crimes. But less than 1 percent of those arrests were for cannabis. Still, that number has been on the rise dramatically. In 2017, 1,044 people faced cannabis-related charges in South Korea.
Could South Korea Actually Enforce A Worldwide Cannabis Ban?
Given how many South Koreans are abroad in places with legal cannabis, it’s hard to imagine police cracking down on everyone who has smoked a joint or two studying abroad or on vacation. And South Korea’s law enforcement have acknowledged that. They say they plan to focus on suspected drug traffickers and those with prior histories of cannabis offenses. Officials also say they monitor social media for posts from Korean nationals that talk about weed. Those caught could face up to a five-year prison sentence and a $50,000 fine.
In the end, Korean nationals who use cannabis abroad probably won’t face legal repercussions for cannabis if they keep a low profile. The same can’t be said for Korean pop stars, however. South Korean officials have a tendency to make an example out of celebrities busted for cannabis, shaming them on national television and banning them from performing when they return from their average 40-month prison sentences.