North Korea has been getting some pretty high praise lately from the stoner world.
Marijuana news outlets including High Times, Merry Jane and Green Rush — along with British tabloids, which always love a good yarn — are hailing the North as a pothead paradise and maybe even the next Amsterdam of pot tourism. They've reported North Korean marijuana to be legal, abundant and mind-blowingly cheap, sold openly to Chinese and Russian tourists at a major market on the North's border for about $3 a pound.
But seriously, North Korea? Baked?
The claim that marijuana is legal in North Korea is not true: The North Korean penal code lists it as a controlled substance in the same category as cocaine and heroin. And the person who would likely help any American charged with a crime in North Korea emphatically rejects the idea that the ban is not enforced.
"There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here," said Torkel Stiernlof, the Swedish ambassador. The United States has no diplomatic relations with the North, so Sweden's embassy acts as a middleman when U.S. citizens run afoul of North Korean laws.
"One can't buy it legally and it would be a criminal offense to smoke it," Stiernlof said. He said that if a foreigner caught violating drug laws in North Korea happened to be an American citizen, he or she could "expect no leniency whatsoever."
Americans have been sentenced to years in North Korean prisons for such seemingly minor offenses as stealing a political banner and leaving a Bible in a public place.
Even so, the claim that North Korea is a haven for marijuana smokers has cycled through the internet in various incarnations with great success over the past few years.
Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-funded news service, lit up the latest round of stoner glee late last month with a story that Chinese and Russian tourists are stocking up on North Korean pot by the kilo in Rason, a special economic zone on the country's northernmost frontier that has a large, bazaar-style marketplace. The same market was the setting for one of the earliest blogs on the topic, a first-person account of getting high in the North from 2013.
Categorically confirming or denying such claims is difficult because foreigners' access to the market is restricted. But where there's smoke, there usually is at least a little fire.
Troy Collings, a frequent traveler to North Korea and managing director of Young Pioneer Tours, offered a more mundane explanation: It's just hemp.
Ditchweed. Nebraska no-high.
"I've seen and even purchased hemp, but it doesn't contain any THC and is just sold as a cheap substitute for tobacco," he told the AP in an email. "It grows wild in the mountainous regions of the North and people pick it, dry it and sell it in the markets, but it doesn't get you high no matter how much you smoke."
Hemp is grown in North Korea with official sanction. It's used to make consumer goods including towels, cooking oil and noodles, as well as and military uniforms and belts. It's also used as rabbit fodder. The rabbits are grown for food.
But industrial hemp is generally so low in THC, the active ingredient found in its cannabinoid cousins, sativa and indica, that it's useless for medicinal or recreational purposes. It's even cultivated in a different manner, focusing on male plants that do not produce buds. It's the buds of female plants that recreational users are most after.
The Pyongyang Hemp Processing Factory actively markets hemp products as "environmentally friendly" and "perfect for the 21st century." An official at the plant told The Associated Press that while several varieties of hemp grow in North Korea, all are very low in THC.
"No one smokes this in our country," she said, requesting she not be named because of the sensitive nature of talking to the American media. "It's only used for making things."
North Korea grows something else that might be confused with marijuana: a mix of brown and greenish leafy tobacco that is used in pipes and sold openly in Pyongyang and elsewhere.
Smoking a lot of that could certainly give someone a buzz — and probably a bad headache. But from the nicotine.
Nevertheless, Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, another agency that specializes in bringing foreign tourists to the North, said the idea marijuana is legal in North Korea has become so widespread that it's not uncommon for prospective tourists to ask what to expect.
"We apologize, but have to inform those enquiring about this that weed is not legal. They are not going to be able to get any there," he said.
"The idea that the country is full of stoners blissfully getting high in a legal-weed paradise is not an accurate one," he added. "Not having seen or done something doesn't mean it is never seen or done, of course. But I have never seen this."