Article written by
Shanti RyleContent Writer
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The sale, use, possession, and cultivation of recreational cannabis is illegal in South Korea under the Narcotics Control Act. In 2018, however, the government legalized medical marijuana by passing an amendment that allows for its use under certain, strict conditions.
Access to medical cannabis for South Koreans is available but strictly regulated, available only to those with certain qualifying conditions, and approved only on a case-by-case basis.
Once approved, patients may only apply for one of four CBD-based medicines, depending on their condition, and must travel to obtain it.
Medical Marijuana Laws in South Korea
Cannabis was a regular part of Korean medicine stretching back hundreds of years, with historians believing it was first introduced to the area thanks to the Silk Road.
Hemp grows wild in South Korea, particularly in the southeastern province of Gyeongbuk, and was traditionally used for clothing fabric and other industrial purposes, as well as a remedy for pain or constipation.
A wave of prohibition movement that spread globally in the mid-1900s led to Korea’s first Narcotics Act in 1957, which prohibited the use of marijuana, specifically from India.
The law’s verbiage allowed Korea’s cannabis industry to thrive, with many hippies from the United States traveling through to try the local varietals.
In response, the Cannabis Control Act of 1976 banned all marijuana use and helped spread a negative perception of weed that was fueled by the United States’ global War on Drugs. This act merged with the Narcotics Act of 1957 to form the Narcotics Control Act in 2000, which still applies today.
When it amended the Narcotics Control Act to allow for medical marijuana, South Korea became the first East Asian country to allow medical cannabis products, albeit with strict regulation and only for four CBD products.
What to Know About About Medical Cannabis in South Korea
Only Some Medical Cannabis Products Are Legal
South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has permitted the following cannabis products in the country:
- Epidiolex, for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes
- Marinol, for weight loss or nausea from cancer treatment
- Cesamet, for weight loss or nausea from cancer treatment
- Sativex, for multiple sclerosis
Patients Must Apply With the Government to Access Medical Marijuana
Patients must obtain a doctor’s prescription and bring their medical records to apply with the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety for permission to use hemp medicine.
Once they receive approval, patients must then apply to the Korea Orphan Drug Center to obtain the specific CBD medication they need and can only order the product through this agency.
Once ordered online, patients must travel to the center’s Seoul offices to arrange pick-up.
Recreational Use Remains Illegal, Even Abroad
Recreational marijuana and any products containing THC or obtained outside the legal framework are illegal in South Korea. Furthermore, South Koreans traveling abroad, even in legalized regions such as Canada or parts of the United States, are still beholden to their home country’s laws and can be charged with hard drug violations if caught consuming.
Per Korean law, the penalty for violating simple recreational marijuana use or possession is up to five years in prison and up to 50 million won, roughly $38,000. The punishments increase per the severity of the cannabis-related crime.
Can You Grow Cannabis In South Korea?
In 2020, South Korea appointed the southeastern province of Gyeongbuk as a regulation-free zone for hemp cultivation, making the area the home of South Korea’s cannabis industry. The site is the only place in the country where licensed cultivators can legally cultivate hemp for export and medicinal purposes.
However, producing such hemp-based products remains uncertain, and many regulations must change to safely allow a medical cannabis industry in South Korea.
Outside of these licensed farmers, the cultivation of cannabis is strictly prohibited.
The Bottom Line
South Korea is ahead of other countries in East Asia in legalization but still has far to go to create a robust medical marijuana program.
Recreational cannabis is still highly illegal, with THC-containing products considered narcotic drugs and punishable by strict penalties. If traveling in South Korea, or even as a South Korean traveling abroad, it’s best to respect the country’s laws.