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Smoking Weed in North Korea: A Critical Review

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On 29th September I wrote a report about smoking weed in North Korea. The piece described a visit to the local market in Rason, a remote port city on the north coast of the DPRK. For me, the real narrative of the story was the experience of visiting the market itself. Having been on a package tour of North Korea prior to this, it felt like a rare treat to see something so down to earth, a behind-the-scenes look at normal life in the DPRK.

My report was read, shared, shared and shared again, reaching as many as 100,000 views within the first few days. This brought with it a lot of feedback, and most of it positive: for what many described as an original and unique take on tourism in North Korea. However, subsequent features in the press also brought the attention of numerous experts – and just recently I’ve been hearing criticisms and misgivings from those who find this account difficult to accept.

The main issue seems to be that many people – and people with extensive knowledge of the country, at that – are confident that cannabis is not actually legal in North Korea. Working backwards from this understanding, some have suggested that the substance my tour group took to be cannabis was actually, in fact, an unripe rolling (or chewing) tobacco; and my report devalued by an error of judgement.

The accuracy of reporting on this blog is something I take very seriously, which is why I’m offering this evaluation of my first account. It’s also important to note that I have no vested interest in whether or not this really was cannabis; I feature no ads on my site, I make no money from writing these reports, and so I’m not looking to make a quick buck from posting sensational articles. My interest lies purely in the pursuit of truth.

The Case For Cannabis

I’m happy to bow down to superior knowledge, and accept what the experts are telling me:

Cannabis is not legal in North Korea.

I’ve heard it from so many sources now, that it looks pretty conclusive. While I regret the mistake of posting such a statement, it came as a logical conclusion to my own experiences and was supported by much of the literature available online.

I’m not the first person to write about cannabis usage in the DPRK – and nor will I be the last. There are plenty of reports out there dealing with the growth and usage of marijuana in North Korea, from VICE Magazine through to academic discussion of defector accounts over on NKNews.

In any other country, any other context, observation alone would serve to form a conclusive argument; if it looks, feels, smells and tastes like cannabis – plus it gets you high – then it probably is cannabis. The eight members of our tour group were in unanimous agreement that the substance had the weed’s unmistakable effect.

Adding a little further credence to the hypothesis, just a few weeks after the incident I found a cluster of cannabis plants growing wild in a field in northeast China. It wasn’t much of a stretch to suppose that the plant also grows freely in nearby North Korea; or that people harvest and smoke it in more rural parts of the country.

I always like to seek the opinion of an expert though.

As it so happens, another member of my tour group was the proprietor of a ‘head shop’ in the UK. Lazy Frog is based in Swindon, and stocks an extensive range of ‘smokeware’ – this made James, then store manager, as close to being a cannabis expert as the law would allow.

We’d swapped emails and I recently got in touch with James out of the blue, asking if he could just describe the scene in his own words. He was happy to help.

“When we were in the market in Rason city, amongst farmers’ and fishers’ produce was a tobacco stall selling huge amounts of tobacco and weed for really cheap. The weed was just dried and mashed up marijuana plants, and I certainly couldn’t begin to guess its genetics from the state it was in.”

I asked James whether it felt like weed too, as opposed to the buzz of smoking tobacco. He replied:

“Well it had a very familiar smell, and although nothing like smoking skunk here in the UK, definitely had an effect on the group’s mood – and appetite. Even the kimchi that I just couldn’t face before, suddenly became really, really tasty.” [1]

The Case Against Cannabis

Nobody has yet contacted me to offer a correction or criticism of my report, but in the wake of recent publicity surrounding my post several notable experts have voiced their disapproval. These arguments generally boil down to a simple series of assertions, and their logical conclusion:

1. Cannabis usage is illegal in North Korea, although public knowledge regarding the plant is low.

2. The substance pictured in my report could also be un-dried tobacco, which is greenish in colour, and smoked by many poorer people in North Korea.

3. This substance is often quite strong, a selling point in itself, and so could give the impression of being something other than tobacco.

Therefore: the substance we bought was not cannabis, but rather a green, un-dried tobacco.

One of my critics (Matthew Reichel, Executive Director of the East West Coalition and the Pyongyang Project) suggested that this incident had been the result of an error in translation; based on my use of the term “iptambe” in the original report. According to Matthew, this word is sometimes used to refer to cannabis in South Korea – but in the North, it invariably means hand rolled tobacco cigarettes.

However, this is a term I only came across during my later research. During my time in the DPRK, I never heard the substance named in Korean.

After reading his comments, I made contact with Matthew to see if he could help with an explanation. He confirmed: “it is possible to find marijuana in markets in the DPRK. Farmers tend to smoke it sometimes”; and, that it is generally referred to as “yaktambe” or “taemacho”. He went on to assert though that he had never seen cannabis on open display – but rather that it would tend to be kept underneath or behind market stalls, out of sight. Matthew was convinced that rather than cannabis, what we had found here was a substance known locally as kosari – “cheap, not fully dried leaf tobacco.”

I also got in touch with Simon Cockerell, manager of the tour group Koryo Tours, who had similarly damned my account.

“I don’t really see it,” he wrote in his reasonable reply, “smoking weed isn’t a common thing in North Korea, whereas smoking tobacco is almost totally omnipresent, it seems just that the simple analysis of what is more likely (Occam’s Razor basically) suggests that it is tobacco rather than anything else.”

I asked him whether it was possible that some vendors still (perhaps even unknowingly) sell poor quality cannabis on Rason market – even despite the legality issues; whether it was possible that our group had seen something that just didn’t fit conventional Western knowledge of North Korea.

He agreed it was possible.

“Being illegal is not necessarily a total barrier to people selling things, even in a market situation where there are monitors,” he said. However, the nature of Rason market made this problematic for him:

“Rason is a place quite a few people have detailed knowledge about and access too, this is probably the place where there is the most knowledge about trade,” he told me. “If this was somewhere else like in a market in Hamhung or somewhere deep in the interior then I would say this is more likely.”

“Again this is hardly conclusive though,” he admitted.

Conclusions?

At the time, I was personally convinced that the substance in question was cannabis. Nobody told the group off for smoking it, and so the logical conclusion was that we weren’t breaking the law.

In the interest of objectivity however, I’m taking my own opinions out of this review. That leaves us with an expert on cannabis – who was present in the market that day, and was convinced that the substance in question was marijuana…

…against numerous experts on North Korea, who weren’t present, and assert that such a scenario is not impossible; just so unlikely that they don’t believe it happened. The answer I’m hearing, time and time again, is that maybe – just possibly – it could happen… but it didn’t happen to you.

I’m perfectly prepared to hypothesise that the absent critics are right, and that all eight witnesses were incorrect in their identification of the substance – even the one whose entire business revolved around its use. But what if I were to apply Occam’s Razor from my own perspective, using the evidence available?

Which perspective would you find more convincing?

If you haven’t already, now check out my original report on smoking weed in North Korea.


A Final Note on Accuracy

There’s a tagline at the top of this page that reads, “Exploring the bizarre, the macabre & other secret wonders of the world.”

Well, exploration is a process of learning.

I’ve written coming on for 100 reports now, from more than a dozen different countries and spanning three continents. I certainly don’t claim to be an ‘expert’ on each one of these destinations (though I’ve certainly learned a lot through the process of visiting and writing about them).

My first-hand impressions are exactly that, and these personal reflections will usually drive a report. I always try to go one step further though, and share what I consider to be important backstory with each location or event. There’s a vast amount of research involved in that, and I take a pride in my dedication to reporting the facts accurately. Once in a while though, it’s possible that I’ll make a mistake – or trust the wrong sources. In those instances, I want to be corrected.

I deeply regret having temporarily added to the mountain of misinformation out there about North Korea, when, in my last post I asserted the seemingly logical conclusion that “cannabis is legal in North Korea”… but I was also disappointed by the responses showed by experts and academics alike.

One critic publicly ridiculed my report in an extremely well-read AMA on Reddit. Another shared remarks in a related forum, branding me an “idiot” and dismissing my hard work as “BS.” Not one of my critics took the time to contact me, or even leave a comment on my report.

Such responses don’t strike me as an effective approach to dealing with (here unwitting) misinformation – as opposed to, say, contacting the author and highlighting a mistake, or suggesting an informed revision of the text. I had always assumed we were on the same side.

So if you’re an expert on something I’ve discussed and you think you know better, then please… do us both a favour by using the comments section. That’s what it’s there for.


[1] I, on the other hand, adore kimchi.

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  1. Just responding on your interesting article about North Korea. For starters you seamed to go out of your way to be thoroughly objective in your analysis of the substance in question. I agree with others in the view that pot is a very distinctive substance and it would be very hard to mistake for tobacco or anything else especially by people who are intimately familiar with it. The photographs resolution doesn’t allow for a conclusive analysis, but it does appear to be a poorly grown and cultivated form of low grade pot. The size and shape of the leaves are very different between pot and tobacco.

    I do not recall you ever asserting that pot was legal in N. Korea, just making a reasonable assumption that since you purchased it openly in a notoriously restrictive country with the full knowledge of your guides who would most certainly bear some responsibility for your “crimes”, that it must be o.k.
    It seams that a more logical conclusion would be that people are pretty unfamiliar with pot, its use and legal status. Apparently even the people selling it.

    As you stated in your article the guides tended to rule on the side of caution when it came to what was and wasn’t allowed which is what you would expect. So why would they permit you to purchase and smoke pot and even partake with you? They were probably very familiar with the rules concerning photography, travel,etc. but not so much about purchasing a dried plant at an open market and then smoking it. In a country were people smoke as much as they do it probably seemed perfectly natural.

    • Hi Kevin, thanks for this comment. As you say, the photos aren’t the best quality. If I had any idea how much debate this article would generate, I definitely would have taken more care to get accurate close-up images! Nevertheless, it did seem the most plausible explanation to me. After all, the plant grows naturally throughout areas of China and North Korea.

      As for the assertion of legality, I did actually write something along those lines in the original article. Not as a statement of fact, so much as a conclusion – i.e., “…therefore it seems to be legal.”

      Once I started getting some of the negative feedback though, I retracted this statement in order to focus purely on the concrete facts, build a case from the ground up, then leave the process of drawing conclusions to each individual reader.

      But again, as you say, it doesn’t seem likely that these ‘minders’ would have such things at the top of their list of priorities. So who knows? I know what I believe, but without any solid evidence I can do no more than leave it at that.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment!

  2. It was a smokeable substance and that substance may or may not have been cannabis. This, however, is not what is at stake here. What is at stake is the due diligence you put into your blog. I don’t think anyone doubts your due diligence now, so I’d lay it to res and keep reporting. Some of the stuff here is really interesting.

  3. This might be very outdated and you might not even reply to it, but just adding my 2 cents to the whole article:

    Only one thing smells like cannabis, and that is cannabis. Nothing else comes even close to the taste or smell, not tobacco or any other plant.

    Now, here is the thing. If you buy weed on the streets in the US/Europe or anywhere you get the trimmed bud from the plant, the flower basically. What you see in your bag is the uncut part of the plant, or basically the entire plant dried up. Leaves, stems, etc. These are really common in South America and Afrika for example. In Morocco you can buy the same thing in the Rif mountains after it has been “beaten”, they take the plant into a very thin holed container and bash at it with sticks. Out comes the resin which is collected and ground into premium quality hashish. Now you cant possibly remove 100% of resin that way, so they leave and sell the plant remains localy, it will give a bit less effect but can be smoked by people not affording to buy high quality pure stuff..

    So my conclusion is that what you bought is in fact cannabis.

    • Hi there. Apologies for the slow reply, I’m currently in Cuba and away from good Internet. I do always reply to comments though, eventually…

      Anyway, I completely agree with you – tobacco and cannabis are very different things, and if it smells like cannabis, tastes like cannabis and delivers the same effect, then that’s pretty conclusive. Like you say, this stuff was basically just the leaves. It’s a wild crop, clumsily harvested and then smoked for mild effect, just the same as I’ve seen in places like China and Kazakhstan. I haven’t been to Africa (yet), but I’d imagine this was exactly the same as the products you’re talking about finding there.

      Thanks for the comment, anyway!

  4. If it was cannabis, why would your guide have instructed you that it was legal, as you say he did?

    • Hi Shabba, that’s a good question.

      No one explicitly told us it was “legal” – they just expressed that what we were doing was okay, and nobody tried to stop us. Therefore, it seemed logical at the time to conclude that it *was* legal.

      Knowing what I know now, of course, I would have liked to ask him more questions about it. Was it legal? Or just acceptable? There’s a big difference, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate.

      Possible explanations –

      1. It is legal.
      2. It’s not technically legal, but no one cared.
      3. It’s not technically legal, but no one knew any better.
      4. It was not cannabis, just something that looked, smelled and tasted like cannabis as well as having a similar effect.

      Take your pick!

      Experts say that cannabis is definitely not legal in NK, but that public knowledge about the plant is very limited… so personally, I’m tempted to go for Number 3.

  5. dude. you know what you found. you know what you smoked. nobody can take that away from you. i think it’s fair to assume that your original assumptions on the legality of the issue there were probably spot on. no amount of skepticism, conjecture or speculation on the part of an “expert” can ever trump what you experienced. it’s as simple as that. besides, personally there are very few “experts” on north korea that i really trust, anyway…they tend to be keepers of the status quo when it comes to peddling the propaganda. just my two cents.

    • I think you’re right, that here in the West the term “North Korea expert” comes with some severe limitations. Even those with the most knowledge will still never be trusted with full disclosure by the current regime, and a lot of what they know will remain subject to doubt and potential misunderstanding.

      As for motives and propaganda – I honestly don’t know. I’m sure there’s an element of this in cases, but there also seems to be some really good people involved in tourism, education and aid projects looking to strengthen bonds between North Korea and the West.

      Even though the “experts” mentioned here first caught my attention by publicly slandering my account, once I confronted them, a couple of them turned out to be truly sincere, well-meaning and reasonable people.

      Nevertheless, they still found it difficult to balance my account against their own opinions… and ultimately, all of them chose to stick with the information they already believed.

      All I can do now is come back to your first statement: I know what I found. I know what I smoked. I can’t really make it any clearer than that.

      Anyway, thanks for your support – it’s massively appreciated.

  6. I still take a few issues with your response here.

    When I said “it is possible to find marijuana in markets in the DPRK. Farmers tend to smoke it sometimes.” I was not referring to a place like Rajin Shijang – but rather a much smaller, local sojang or jangmadang in a township in the country somewhere, not a place as organized and well visited as Rajin Shijang. Rajin Shijang is the largest market in Rason SEZ and foreigners are all over that place too, mostly Chinese and Russians. I have been there at least a dozen times, accessing the place is pretty easy.

    I’ll say, if you were really smoking weed, local people would have paid a lot more attention to you. Such a substance is very rare in the DPRK, especially in urban areas, people would have been talking about it. Instead, what that picture looks like is cheap ipdambe (잎담베) and for the price you paid for it, that makes a lot of sense. Ipdambe could also possibly refer to any tobacco substitute that is cheaper than tobacco, like some locally grown plant that has tobacco-like characteristics, or tobacco scraps from processing. It’s generally for poor people who cannot afford packaged cigarettes. If you smoke enough of that stuff you can surely get a buzz. Just an aside, kosari does not mean tobacco, it is a wild vegetable that is eaten and is common at marketplaces in Korea, in my original criticism I was just making a joke.

    My apologies for not writing you directly the first time, but I never saw your original piece, only the IBTimes article that ended up being discussed in our forum.

    • Thanks for the comment Matthew, your points are duly noted. And yes – I completely missed the joke about “kosari”, and took it at face value. Glad you corrected it here.

      It sounds like there was a little misinformation during my tour – or at least that our guides made the experiences they were offering sound more rarified than you attest to. I didn’t see any other non-Koreans during our trip, which certainly supported this suggestion.

      I don’t doubt that you’ve been there a dozen times yourself, though when you say that it’s pretty easy to access… well, I presume you mean for someone in your own situation, who has close ties and regular business in the DPRK. For the vast majority of the world however, I feel my statement will still ring somewhat true.

      I do accept your point, that the large and organised nature of Rajin Shijang makes this an unlikely place to find contraband goods on open display. Highly unlikely, even. I hope I managed to convey that fairly in the above report, using the quotes from both yourself and Simon. I’m not looking to question your expert verdict, and based on that evidence the “ipdambe” hypothesis does seem much more likely.

      However, while that may leave it seemingly easy for you to dismiss my account as an error of judgement, my intention here was to reiterate that this substance in no way resembled – nor had the effect of – tobacco. Even if I had begun to doubt my own memory and judgement, as stated above, we did have something of an ‘expert’ in our group who offered the same account when I recently contacted him.

      You comment that if this had been cannabis, local people would have paid a lot more attention to us – I’m not sure if they could have been paying us any more attention though, a point which I hope I managed to express clearly in the initial report.

      Elsewhere you’ve picked up on my suggestion, that locals seemed surprised we were so interested in something so commonplace – I see you’ve used this as an argument against my assessment. However, perhaps I was going too far to suggest reasons for the locals’ responses – it’s hard enough to read social cues in another culture as it is; let alone somewhere so cut off from the rest of the world as North Korea. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to retract any attempt at guessing what these people were thinking… and instead stick to the observation in its most simple form: everyone in the market was staring at us.

      Is that not the response you would have expected?

      In writing this post I’ve tried to present both sides fairly and leave it open-ended. I respect your superior knowledge, and that of other regular visitors to the DPRK, and have done my best to express that here… but, the scientist in me is loathe to cast out the evidence offered by my own senses – and by the senses of the other members of my group, some of whom were better qualified than myself to draw such a conclusion.

      Though I suspect you still won’t like this response, I hope you can see that I’m doing my best to make it a fair one.

See all 13 comments on “Smoking Weed in North Korea: A Critical Review”

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