In the debates over drug regulation, there is typically one side which argues the government should ban and restrict use of property that is harmful or has high risk of being harmful. They may cite the US Supreme Court case United States v. Miller or bans on more obviously dangerous narcotics like methamphetamines as support for this argument. On the other side, a popular argument is that it is ultimately impossible for a democratic society to have a sufficient level of control over what citizens do in private, and that the result of a strict ban would be an illegal underground marijuana trade and mass incarceration will make the problem worse in total. They may cite the US examples of the failure of Prohibition or failure of the “War on Drugs” in the 1990s to support this view.

According to wiki, in South Korea recreational cannabis was popular in the 60s and 70s before being strictly banned in 1976 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_in_South_Korea). Currently, South Korea has one of the lowest marijuana use rates in the world (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annual_cannabis_use_by_country). South Korea’s incarceration rate is much lower than that of the US (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate).

Does the example of South Korea in the 1970s provide an example of a democratic and capitalist country successfully prohibiting marijuana use? What factors could explain the discrepancy in outcome of these policies in South Korea since the 1970s as opposed to the United States over the same period? I think it likely that South Korea being close to other tough-on-crime countries, historical culture, a more homogeneous ethnicity, and maybe even lead levels in the US baby boomer generation could be possible explanations. Are there other factors?

  • 5
    Question seems to be based on an arbitrary selection bias of a single drug and two countries. Why focus on South Korea when cannabis use in Japan and many other countries is just as low? It's also relevant that methamphetamine use is more widely reported in Korea then cannabis use.
    – Brian Z
    May 22, 2022 at 2:43
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    The fact that South Korea was a (rather brutal) military dictatorship until 1987 might play a role.
    – user43248
    May 22, 2022 at 11:45
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    Local culture plays a significant role. In some places, doing slightly illegal things makes you look cool. In other places, it makes you look like a jerk.
    – vsz
    May 23, 2022 at 4:17
  • Laws like this rely on a high level of enforcement, or a high level of popular willingness to comply, or both. Typically you need both: the level of speeding on UK roads has been reduced over the years by a combination of greater enforcement of speed limits, and public education as to the benefits of reducing your speed. May 23, 2022 at 9:12
  • FWIW, abortion was a crime in South Korea until very recently, but this prohibition was widely ignored and unenforced. So, it isn't simply a matter of it being better at enforcing laws.
    – ohwilleke
    May 26, 2022 at 4:04

1 Answer 1


Does the example of South Korea in the 1970s provide an example of a democratic and capitalist country successfully prohibiting marijuana use?

No, because until 1987 South Korea was not a democratic country.

  • Is a country ruled by chaebols truly democratic? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user43134
    May 22, 2022 at 19:05
  • 1
    But it is a democratic country now, and the prohibition still works quite well.
    – vsz
    May 23, 2022 at 4:18
  • 5
    @vsz inertia must count for something - it's usually easier to keep things as they are than to change them.
    – muru
    May 23, 2022 at 10:28
  • The physical United States borders see a lot of daily traffic, we have much less drugs coming in via air and ship than over the borders. There is also the fact that we seem to have a lot of open space to hide our own crops. Without those factors (Both of which don't apply to South Korea), we'd probably have much less marajuana... At least before states started legalizing it.
    – Bill K
    May 23, 2022 at 21:42

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