Unfortunately, many countries continue to view marijuana in the same light as they do heroin or cocaine. Considered one of the world’s best examples of a democracy, South Korea or the Republic of Korea (ROK) is home to some of the strictest cannabis laws on the planet. Tourists, students, teachers and military families have all discovered that what’s medicinal in one country can put you in prison in another.
ROK police officers have the authority to stop anyone on the street and test them for drug use. The most commonly used test is the hair follicle test. This test can detect drug use as far back as three years (depending on various factors including frequency of use and metabolism). In South Korea, it doesn’t matter where you took the drug. If THC is detected, arrest is more than likely.
THC in your system is all that you need to get arrested in South Korea. Depending on the circumstances (personal use, distribution, amount) ROK judges impart everything from a suspended sentence to five years in prison. Most Americans reported spending a few days to a few months behind bars.
Drug enforcement is serious business in the port city of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Home to the world’s largest plastic surgery industry, Seoul is also considered the perfect place to transfer drugs from China to Japan. According to the International Business Times, 20 South Korean drug dealers have been executed in China for drug smuggling. Although the drugs were amphetamines and opiates, it illustrates how serious Asia is about drug crimes. The laws are firm and they are enforced, regardless of nationality.
For South Koreans travelling abroad, the laws still apply. The transatlantic arrest of Korean rapper Crown J back in 2010 revealed the long arm of South Korean drug laws. Crown J was caught smoking a joint while recording an album in the United States. The singer was sentenced to a hefty fine as well as eight months in prison and two years probation.
Canadian and American ESL teachers in South Korea have made the headlines more than once for cannabis use. Cautionary tales of former ROK teachers litter the internet. The lucky ones were immediately deported. Others spend months in depressing South Korean prisons with little in the way of civil liberties awaiting the money to pay for their fines and plane tickets home. Foreign military, extended visa users as well as dozens of unsuspecting tourists enjoy their own headlines for cannabis related arrests in the ROK every year.
Despite strict law enforcement of cannabis use, a healthy illegal drug does exist in South Korea. Many Korean smokers purchase cannabis online from local websites offering home delivery. In capital city Seoul, drug dealers deliver the cannabis within hours of the order.
Drug related arrests in South Korea in 2011 amounted to just over 7,000. In 2014 that number was 9,742. The most common drugs trafficked are marijuana and crystal meth. Crystal meth is a big issue in the ROK accounting for 55 percent of the trafficking trade.
Treating crystal meth in the same way as cannabis may not make sense to the average pro-pot westerner, but habit and social mores have demonized the weed in South Korea. According to the Korean Observer, in 2013 there were 381 drug arrests of foreigners. In 2014, that number rose to 505. Remember, in South Korea, you don’t have to be in the country to violate its cannabis laws.
For habitual users intending to travel outside of a legal cannabis zone, do your research. Review your bucket list and make sure that special time in the sun doesn’t turn into that most traumatic time in prison.
Click here for the legal status of cannabis around the world.