Is Weed Legal in Korea? Non-indictment in Cannabis Import Case

‘Cannabis import’ is one of the drug crimes in Korea that has seen a significant increase these days. Since many countries including the U.S., Canada, Thailand, and Australia, have legalized medical and recreational use of cannabis, it has become much easier to get cannabis products without a doctor’s prescription or license. However, it is important to exercise caution when entering Korea with these ‘legal’ cannabis products.

In this article, we will examine the legal regulations and penalty guidelines that apply to marijuana and other cannabis products in Korea and present a case of cannabis import that got a non-indictment decision due to our drug crime attorney’s early and proactive defense of the suspect.

Definition and Punishment of Cannabis (Weed) Offenses, Is Weed Legal in Korea?

According to Article 2 of Korea’s Narcotics Control Act, cannabis is defined as the following:

Article 2 Paragraph 4: The term “cannabis” refers to the following, provided that this shall exclude the seeds, roots, and mature stalks of the cannabis plant (referring to Cannabis Sativa L.; hereinafter the same shall apply) as well as products manufactured from them:

a) the cannabis plant (Cannabis Sativa L.) and the resin extracted from it;

b) any products manufactured using the cannabis plant or its resin as their raw materials;

c) chemical compounds similar to those specified under a) or b) which shall be determined by presidential decree;

d) any mixture or concoction containing substances specified under a) through c).


Penalties for Cannabis/Marijuana (Weed) Offenses in Korea

Regardless of the type or form of cannabis, the possession or use of it is strictly prohibited in Korea and may result in criminal penalties. The sentencing guidelines for cannabis crimes according to Korea’s Narcotics Control Act state that

a person who has imported or manufactured cannabis (weed) can receive a prison sentence of 5 years to life;

a person who has been charged with mere possession of cannabis (weed) can receive a prison sentence of around 1 year;

a person who is dealing cannabis or facilitating the distribution of it can receive a sentence of at least 1 year.


Penalties for Unintentional Illegal Possession of Cannabis in Korea

Even if you unintentionally are in illegal possession of marijuana when entering Korea from a foreign country, you will be charged with importing cannabis (weed) to Korea, and as such your penalty will be higher than the usual penalty for a simple cannabis possession charge.

Recently, a Korean court has ruled that even if you simply carry cannabis in your bag when entering Korea from another country, it is considered to be an act of importing drugs and therefore can be punished with a prison sentence of 5 years to life.

When a Korean-Australian, ‘A’, who had entered Korea from Australia, filed a constitutional complaint claiming that Article 58 (1) 5 of the Narcotics Control Act was unconstitutional, the Constitutional Court of Korea has came to a unanimous decision that it is indeed constitutional. Article 58 (1) 5 of the Narcotics Control Act of Korea states that a person who imports/exports cannabis or possesses/carries it for such purpose shall be punished with a sentence of 5 years to life, which is a considerably high punishment.

A was caught in 2019 and indicted by the prosecution on charges of importing marijuana after he put five cannabis cartridges in a suitcase and sent them as checked baggage from Australia.
During the trial, A filed an appeal on grounds of an unconstitutional law in regard to Article 58 (1) 5 of the Narcotics Control Act, claiming, that “the cannabis oil belonged to his Australian husband who had put it in his bag,” and that “punishing him for something that he was merely carrying in his bag violates his basic rights.”

However, Mr. A’s application was rejected by the Constitutional Court.
This shows that even if you are entering Korea with marijuana or cannabis products you have accidentally or unintentionally put in your suitcase, you will not be charged with mere possession, but with import of cannabis.


Penalties for Various Cannabis Products in Korea

In Korea, even a cannabis product like CBD jelly, which can be easily purchased or acquired, is classified as an illegal product. Korea does not allow the use of cannabis products, and if you enter Korea with these, or if you have internationally shipped marijuana or other cannabis products to Korea, Korean law considers these acts to be cannabis import offenses. Therefore, you may be subject to a criminal investigation and punishment.

If the candy or jelly you have purchased from a drug store has a ‘hemp’, ‘marijuana’, or ‘cannabis’ mark, meaning that there is a possibility that it contains marijuana, you should be very cautious not to bring these prohibited substances into Korea.

Still, the level of the sentence determined by the court may increase or decrease depending on the situation. The type of cannabis that was imported, the amount, how you came to import it, whether you have a medical license, whether you carry it for sale or distribution purposes, whether you have negatively affected minors with it, and whether you belong to a drug cartel, are all factors that will be considered.
If you have previously committed the same offense or are a habitual offender, your sentence may increase, but if you are a first-time offender, your sentence may be reduced, and you may even avoid punishment.


Case Overview: Incident of Cannabis Import into Korea

The following case involves ‘B’, an American who recently entered Incheon International Airport with cannabis candy and cannabis oil cartridges in his possession. Cannabis candy, chocolate, jelly, or vape cartridges may be legally available in the United States, but all of these are illegal products in Korea, regardless of whether they contain CBD or THC.

Cannabis for Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

‘B’ was seized by customs at Incheon International Airport last year after carrying 10 CBD candies containing cannabis in his luggage when he entered Incheon International Airport on a business trip.
In addition, B had also carried cannabis oil cartridges which he normally used to treat his anxiety disorders and insomnia. These cannabis oil cartridges were stowed in his cabin baggage and seized by the customs’ special police force. B was consequently banned from leaving the country until the case was closed.
B reached out to us to appoint a Korean cannabis defense lawyer who can speak English and defend him against his charges.


Medical Marijuana Policies in Korea: Is Medical Marijuana Legal?

Cannabis cartridges, which are commonly detected at Korean customs, are products containing THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and/or CBD (Cannabidiol), which are used as alternatives to painkillers and sleeping pills and can be used for other medical purposes as well. In many countries, the purchase of so-called ‘medical marijuana’ is allowed if you have a license.

In Korea, however, marijuana is strictly prohibited. Currently, there are only 5 drugs from a few pharmaceutical companies that have been allowed in Korea since 2020, but these are tightly restricted and controlled. They can only be purchased through the Korea Rare Essential Drug Center, and only after a submission of a health professional’s prescription for patients with rare or incurable diseases has received the approval by the Korean Health Authorities. Although B possessed marijuana for medical purposes, he did not meet these strict requirements, and was therefore subject to a criminal investigation and punishment in Korea.


Drug Defense Lawyer’s Strategy for Foreigners in Cannabis Case

In this case, our Korean criminal defense attorney actively defended the client by engaging from the initial stages of the interview with the special police team.

The attorney argued that before entering Korea, the client had traveled to a country where cannabis was legal, and from that point to the point when he got on the plane to Korea, he already had the cannabis candy, jelly, and cartridges in possession. Moreover, the cannabis amount contained in these products was small, and it should therefore be recognized that there was no intent of illegally trading or selling cannabis products in Korea. The results of a drug test that was taken has further shown that there is no evidence of the client using other substances such as amphetamines, which supports the client’s statement that he exclusively used hemp products to alleviate his anxiety disorders and insomnia.

But besides having a legal defense for the cannabis offense, it was also important to lift the imposed travel ban as quickly as possible. Usually, a ban is effective for 30 days. However, B was supposed to stay in Korea for only 5 days and then leave for another country in order to continue his business trip, which means that he could have faced being reprimanded or even fired by the company, if he were to be prohibited from leaving on time due to the drug crime investigation.

Our lawyers argued to the prosecution that even if a drug smuggling charge applies, the offense was not a serious one and the penalty would equally be rather low, which is why the indictment should be suspended. Within just 3 days, the prosecution made the decision not to prosecute the suspect and lifted the travel ban as well. In the end, B was able to leave Korea on the scheduled date without receiving a legal penalty.



B’s case shows that even if the purchase, possession, or use of marijuana is legal in your home country, these actions are in violation of the Korean Narcotics Control Act and therefore punishable by Korean law, which is why you must be cautious not to engage in such acts when in Korea.

The possession, use, import, and export of all cannabinoids and products containing cannabis components like CBD or THC is subject to criminal punishment in Korea. These include products such as CBD oil cartridges for e-cigarettes (vaping), cannabis oil, cannabis cream, cannabis chocolate and weed cookies, and this also applies for cannabis and its products sold in areas like Canada or the U.S. where it has been legalized.

Without proper representation from a Korean drug defense attorney who can interpret for you and communicate on your behalf, a foreigner who is being investigated on charges related to marijuana in Korea could be subject to excessive enforcement of arrest or investigation procedures by the police. Even without clear evidence, they could suspect that you are a member of a drug gang and consequently search through phone messages and galleries as well as ban you from leaving the country for an extended period of time.

Foreigners who have been investigated by Korean law enforcement in relation to marijuana drug offenses should therefore actively prepare defense strategies beginning at the early stages of the investigation by consulting a drug crime specialist lawyer who is fluent in English and Korean.

On top of representing and assisting during the investigation and trial stages, the lawyers at our law firm work on a defense strategy to protect the visa status of foreigners who have been unfairly charged for drug offenses and are consequently under investigation by the immigration office. At Lawfirm Lee & Lee, we put all our efforts into preventing our clients from being ordered or forced to leave the country.


Is Weed Legal in Korea





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