The Korean marijuana story - The Korea Times
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The Korean marijuana story

By David Tizzard

Smoking marijuana in South Korea is big no-no. We all know that. Actually, if you are a South Korean, smoking marijuana anywhere in the world is illegal. But that was not always the case.

Marijuana grows naturally on the Korean Peninsula and has done so for thousands of years, particularly in Gangwondo. The high-reaching plant was often used as a dust guard to protect homes from all the dirt and mud that would be kicked up.

Hemp (locally known as daema) was utilized for rope and the traditional sambe fiber for clothing. It was also used to create hanboks (the traditional Korean costume) and funeral shrouds.

The rest of the plant was often used by the elderly to help with the various aches, pains, and discomforts that come with age, particularly constipation. Because of its versatility and uses, Japan encouraged its cultivation during the colonial period.

The country's first president, Syngman Rhee, sought to outlaw the use of various narcotics and, likely inspired by movements in the United States, passed the Korean Narcotics Act of 1957, which prohibited marijuana and many other drugs. Crucially, however, this bill prohibited "Indian marijuana" (cannabis sativa L.) rather than the locally grown hemp (cannabis sativa).

In something that sounds like a Cheech and Chong fairytale, westerners living in Korea during the 1960s talk of how it was simply a case of reaching out a hand and picking buds from the plants as they travelled the countryside. In his book on the Korean War, historian Max Hastings recounts a humorous tale of North Korea soldiers being confused by their American and British prisoners of war's constant laughing and singing while supposedly under duress in the camps: they did not realize the captured troops had found large stashes of wacky-backy and were smoking it frequently.

All of this would change, as would much of life here, following the rise to power of the military general Park Chung-hee and his subsequent Yushin Constitution. Shortly after Ferdinand Marcos' move to make himself president for life in the Philippines, Park carried out similar reforms ― essentially making himself irreplaceable at the top of the Korean social and political hierarchy and enacting a series of draconian social and cultural laws.

These laws involved regulating the lengths of women's skirts, the length of men's hair, and even the consumption of white rice. Music, movies, and literature also had to be uplifting and serve to sing the praises of the president and the nation in a manner that would have brought a tear to the eye of the similarly-styled kings of the North.

Guidelines from Broadcasting Ethics Commission outlawed anything that would sully the nation's reputation or result in a social disturbance. This was a big shock for many local musicians.

Singer Park Gwang-soo told the Hankyoreh in 2005 that he would frequently smoke marijuana on the streets in the late 1960s. His brooding 1972 song with guitarist Shin Joong-hyun "Jandi" (grass/lawn, a slang term for weed) was seemingly an ode to the habit. The track would not be out of place on a Jefferson Airplane or Pink Floyd album and is well worth listening to on YouTube after this.

Following trends from elsewhere, South Korean artists, hipsters, and musicians began exploring what would come to be called "happy smoke". For those growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a rather commonplace thing and far from the dread-inspiring taboo it is today.

A year after his song with Park, guitarist Shin (perhaps most recognizable for his song and the riff from "Beautiful Woman") wrote an article in the Sunday Seoul magazine that described and detailed experiences, uses, and opinions on happy smoke.

But such art, such attitudes, such deviance from a militaristic way of life that regulated every part of a person's life internally and externally was not acceptable to Park. Musicians and artists were placed in jail for marijuana use. Shin was also sent to a mental hospital. Park called for the death penalty for users as he sought to send an unambiguous message to the nation's youth and the left.

The 1976 Cannabis Control Act was politically motivated. It argued that the regulation of the use of this plant was essential for the country's very survival. In a 1976 speech, the diminutive dictator (they often are short, aren't they?) said, "At this grave juncture that will settle the life and death in our one-on-one confrontation with the Communist Party, the smoking of marijuana by the youth is something that will bring ruin to the country."

That law and those attitudes laid down by Park Chung-hee still hang over much of the country today as a prohibitive purple haze.

Progressive politicians, educated people, and the youth have done remarkable things in bravely encouraging greater attitudes towards multiculturalism, anti-discrimination laws for sexual minorities, free and open political speech, and less patriarchal attitudes towards women. Yet, among these progressives, from my experience, most are still largely opposed to marijuana ― mainly because it is illegal.

For Koreans, law is essentially in their blood (hopefully unlike the marijuana). No matter where a Korean goes in the world, they still have to live according to the laws of their native land. Remember that old saying, "When in Rome?" It simply does not apply to them, unfortunately.

When Canada legalized recreational marijuana, a strong message was sent to 23,000 South Korean students studying there: smoke it and you will be punished according to the full extent of the Korean law regardless of what or what is not legal in Canada. Similar laws and policies apply to gambling abroad.

When in Korea, we follow Korean laws. When Koreans go abroad, they follow … Korean laws. It is Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

And yes, we have all had the conversations: "Imagine that instead of all those ajjoshis drunk on soju and shouting at each other they were just spaced out and listening to Nuggets compilations and Dylan."

"It would be so much better if the people here smoked more, man!"

But things are different here. And that has to be respected.

Medical marijuana was legalized here a couple of years back. Normally, Korea likes to announce its relative triumphs over its regional rivals, but despite being the first state in East Asia to legalize the use of marijuana as a hospital herb, most Korean citizens are still largely unaware of this.

Now, let's just imagine you are a state-sponsored entity created to invest the nation's money and generate further funds for hard-working taxpayers. Considering all of the above, what is the last thing you are going to invest in? Well, yes, of course: anything too Japanese.

But, based on everything above, a very close second would be anything remotely related to ganga. That is why it came as a great surprise to read this week that the Korea Investment Corporation (KIC), the nation's state-run investment organization, lost nearly $9 million following its investments in cannabis companies on U.S stock markets.

This follows on from last month when four investment managers in the National Pension Service (NPS), responsible for more than 700 trillion won in assets, were investigated for allegedly smoking cannabis. They reportedly acknowledged the allegations during questioning.

Korean rappers Owen, Nafla, Loopy, BLOO, and Young West also reportedly smoked in a music studio last year and received suspended indictments. This was made public recently and Owen lost his position on the popular hip-hop challenge program "Show Me the Money" after only just making his debut last week.

Public outrage over these issues still affects people's careers.

Of course, the message that came out from the individuals and the record company was the same that we always see: it promised self-reflection and a change of behavior.

This was the same excuse given by the politician caught playing games on his smartphone in the National Assembly this week, the same excuse given by a YouTuber Korean Englishman when he uploaded videos seemingly breaking quarantine rules, the same excuse given by drunk drivers, and basically any other celebrity who gets caught doing something society does not want them to: "Sorry, I will reflect on my actions. Please forget about me for a while."

I am pretty sure even Sam Okyere might have even said something similar when faced with a public backlash for simply having the temerity to stand-up against racism in the country.

But, in the case of these 5 rappers, wouldn't it have been more interesting if they had said, "Yes, we broke the law. And we are sorry about that. But actually we think the laws here related to that sticky icky icky are far too draconian and that they do not accurately reflect the health effects. Moreover, with much of the western world modernizing its attitudes towards this, we wonder if it is not finally time for such a conversation to take place here again among Koreans."

Will anyone write the next chapter of the Korean marijuana story? Or will it be a continuation of Park Chung-hee's virulent anti-communist conservative narrative of the 1970s?

Dr. David Tizzard ( has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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