Cannabis has been illegal in South Korea since 1976. Yet in November 2018, the country legalized cannabis for medical purposes. The previous penalty for using cannabis for recreational and medical use? Up to five years in prison.

While South Korea is one of the first Asian countries to soften its stance on cannabis, it certainly isn’t the first. Earlier in 2018, Thailand and Sri Lanka also considered legalizing cannabis for recreational and/or medicinal use.

South Korea’s Punishment for Recreational Marijuana Use

South Korea (and Asia in general) is notorious for its harsh punishments for drug use.

On one hand, Korean authorities claim that severe punishments deter would-be users from dabbling in cannabis (and other drugs). South Korea deals with low levels of drug trafficking each year, and the country attributes those statistics to its hardened stance on all controlled substances.

In fact, according to the Korea Herald, the number of drug trafficking arrests made in 2011 was just over 7,000. Compare that to the U.S.’s 1.6 million arrests made in the same year, and you can see why South Korea might not change its policies anytime soon.

While the government might give itself a hefty pat on the back for keeping numbers low, some believe that it’s the anti-drug culture in South Korea that’s to thank. Most Koreans consider drug use to be a social stigma; and in a society that relies heavily on social mores, “Just saying ‘no'” might be easier here than it would in the U.S., Canada or even Europe.

Harshest Sentences for Drug Use in Asia

It’s not only South Korea that maintains a strict stance on drug use in Asia. In fact, most Asian countries are strict with their citizens when it comes to illegal contraband.

In Singapore, the penalty for illegal cannabis use is death. That might seem shocking. Yet, think about some other Singapore laws (chewing gum is illegal, littering and failing to flush the toilet are punishable with a $1,000 fine and the punishment for graffiti is caning), and you might not be so surprised.

When it comes to drug use, the Singapore government can even punish you for taking drugs before entering the country. That means if you partake in cannabis in Amsterdam on your vacation before heading to Singapore, you’re actually breaking the law.

Singapore officials have the authority to drug test anyone. If you have drugs in your system? Yup, you’ll face the consequences of drug use. But will you face the death penalty? That’s up to the judge.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: do these laws actually work (and possibly considering rerouting the itinerary of your next vacation).

According to President Trump, yes. According to others, Singapore’s “winning” the war on drugs would be harder to achieve in larger countries.

In November 2018, Malaysia softened its stance on cannabis and considered abolishing the death penalty for its use and sale.

South Korea Bans Citizens From Using Cannabis Abroad

Not only is it illegal to use recreational cannabis in South Korea, but it’s also illegal for citizens to use it abroad.

In October 2018, Newsweek reported that Korea would start cracking down on citizens heading to Canada to use cannabis — and even the 23,000 South Koreans currently studying in Canada.

The Newsweek article reported:

“It is unclear how authorities would target or test those suspected of indulging while in Canada, and returning travelers are generally not drug tested. Lee Chang-hoon, a professor in the department of police administration at Hannam University in Daejeon, told The Guardian police could focus on known narcotics criminals returning to the country, especially those they suspect might be trying to smuggle drugs into the country.

Despite the hard line issued by Yoon, Lee told the newspaper judges would be more likely to deliberate each case on an individual basis, possibly being more lenient in cases in which medicinal cannabis was involved.”

What Does Cannabis Legalization Mean for South Korea?

For now, it means that South Koreans will be able to access medical marijuana on a case-by-case basis. Will it be as easy to get your hands on a medical marijuana card in South Korea as it is in the U.S.? Probably not. Yet, the relaxation of this law is a huge step for South Korea and Asia in general.

Can we expect to see cannabis legalized for recreational use anytime soon? All signs point to ‘no.’ But with other Asian countries paving the way, it makes sense that South Korea would possibly consider it — much sooner than the rest of the world expected.

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