CBD-Asia Pacific-South Korea

CBD in South Korea


The Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) surprised the world when they were the first country in east Asia to legalize medicinal cannabis, including CBD-based prescription medications. The law allows for four specific medicines to be prescribed to patients with the corresponding medical conditions. This will severely limit the market potential for ROK, but if the laws are relaxed, there could be an influx of innovations in the CBD beauty segment.

Population GDP per Capita Healthcare Spend per Capita Cannabis Use Average Price per 500 mg Tincture 2020 Market Potential

51 million





US $11.3 million

Regulatory Overview

In November of 2018, the Republic of Korea became the first country in east Asia to pass a law legalizing cannabis use for medicinal purposes. The law, an amendment to the Management of Narcotic Drugs Act, restricted the legal cannabis products to strictly oil-based prescription medications and came, as in many other countries, as a result of a mother who sought medicines to aid her sick child.

The law change legalized CBD products only upon a doctor's prescription. On March 12, 2019 the market opened with new, more specific regulations from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) and licensed very few products for very specific ailments. The list included, as with many other medical cannabis programs, Sativex, Epidiolex, Marinol and Cesamet. Unlike other countries' programs, the government delineated which ailments these drugs could address: Sativex would be prescribed only to those with multiple sclerosis, Epidiolex for those with epilepsy, and Cesamet and Marinol would serve as anti-nausea medication for patients struggling with chemotherapy and AIDS.

Consumer Perceptions and Cultural Factors

The low level of consumer engagement the ROK market is experiencing after the legalization of importation of medical cannabis products is likely due to a low level of cultural acceptance – particularly permeating the medical field. If doctors aren't informed of the benefits of prescribing these medications or have a predisposition to distrust cannabis products, it will be difficult for patients to obtain prescriptions. Better communication among doctors and the MFDS will be necessary if patients in Korea are going to obtain the medicine they need.

The November 2018 move to legalize some form of 'cannabis' came as a shock to many Koreans and industry insiders – as the ROK government was, in the past, a notorious critic of cannabis and had even threatened citizens with criminal charges and punishments for using the drug abroad. In the wake of Canada's legalization of cannabis for adult recreational use, a ROK government representative issued a statement which left no room for debate: "Koreans who return [home] after using the drug could face criminal charges." Thus, the legalization of these pharmaceutical products, and the media's characterization of those products as 'medical cannabis' represented an abrupt shift in policy. Because the change was made quietly and little debate period was held beforehand, the announcement likely left many Korean citizens surprised and confused about how to think of cannabis moving forward.  

Competitive Landscape

On March 12, 2019 the market opened only to four very specific medicines: Sativex, Epidiolex, Marinol and Cesamet. For now, only these four medicines, legalized by name, are operating in the Korean market, and even for these brands, the market is small enough to be inconsequential. In the first three months of operation, the Korean Orphan Drug Center only imported 300 prescriptions for GW Pharmaceutical products Epidiolex and Sativex.

Growth Drivers

  • In the coming years, CBD and cannabis are likely to be at least somewhat destigmatized in South Korea as a result of both the domestic legalization of medical cannabis products and a growing global trend.

  • With such a large cultural emphasis on skin care and cosmetics, it's also reasonable to believe that the trendiest new ingredient in cosmetic products – CBD oil – will become popular in South Korea before other forms of recreational CBD and cannabis consumption. This trend, called K-beauty, has driven a huge industry in Europe and North America already, but has failed to incorporate the CBD-in-skincare trend that is taking off equally fast. The next few years are likely to see K-beauty incorporate CBD in skin care and make up products.


  • The process to obtain one of the four pharmaceutical drugs includes a doctor's prescription and application to the MFDS which must include a patient's medical records, followed by an import of the requested medicine from the Korean Orphan Drug Center on behalf of the patient. The number of patients who would qualify for these treatments in South Korea is small, and the number of individuals or families who could afford the treatment is even smaller – insurance companies do not yet cover the cost of these medicines and a year's treatment of Epidiolex can cost more than $25,000.  

  • Cultural perceptions and a stigmatization of cannabis will also represent a challenge for the South Korean market. Especially among doctors, who are not aware of the medically relevant purpose of these new pharmaceuticals, more education and marketing is necessary before acceptance can become commonplace and the market reach its potential.


  • South Korea's beauty market has the potential to have a big impact on CBD-infused beauty, but first the regulations will need to be relaxed.

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