Nothing says, “Happy Lunar New Year!” quite like a fat bag of crystal meth — at least, that’s the way they do it in North Korea.

Methamphetamine use in the reclusive “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” has been widespread since the end of WWII when the drug was introduced to the peninsula and the North Korean military started giving it to their soldiers. But in recent years, use has skyrocketed, not just among military personnel but among civilians as well, inside sources report, particularly among North Korea’s young people.

These days, North Koreans shoot or snort crystal meth as casually as they might light up a cigarette. They do it in public, they do it with their friends and family and apparently, even kids as young as middle-school are using it widely. And now, like a bottle of wine or a nice cigar you might buy for a friend, meth has become a popular gift for graduations, birthdays and holidays like the Lunar New Year.

It’s a drastic contrast with their neighbors to the South, who exchange cans of spam, fruit and other edibles for the same holiday.

Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug — something like Red Bull, amplified,” Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, told The New York Times. Most North Koreans who use meth, have no idea what kinds of health consequences and addictive properties the drug has. To them, it’s just something to take the edge off (or maybe put the edge on), something to escape their bleak reality with.  

Referred to as “pingdu” (or “Ice Drug” in Korean) crystal meth was originally produced in North Korea en masse in the 90’s, when the cash-poor government was trying to make a quick buck slinging it illegally over their border with China or across the Sea of Japan to the Yakuza crime family. But when government production began to decline, that left a lot of skilled meth-makers out of work.

So, many of them started their own small-time labs to cater to the local demand. Which, is apparently (though not surprisingly) very high.

“Ice has become a best-selling holiday gift item,” a source from North Hamgyong province, told Radio Free Asia, who first broke the story. “Drug dealers don’t have enough supply for their buyers.”

In the past, ice users would try to be discreet, not wanting others to know that they were buying, but these days nobody seems to care,” the source continued. Officials are more than willing to take bribes to look the other way, creating a “food chain” of bribery that goes all the way up.

Despite this rampant meth use (and the insane levels of addiction that likely exist throughout the population) the North Korean government remains adamant that none of its citizens use crystal meth, nor do they produce it domestically: “The illegal use, trafficking and production of drugs which reduce human being into mental cripples do not exist in the D.P.R.K.,” North Korea’s state-run news agency said in 2013.

Right. And Kim Jong Un created the hamburger.

Radio Free Asia’s inside source didn’t agree with the state’s claim, either: “Social stigmas surrounding drug use [have disappeared], so people now feel that something big is missing if they don’t have ice or opium prepared as a holiday gift,” the source said. “People usually carefully check the price of products prior to purchase, but they don’t think twice about splurging for meth during the holiday season. [Most people] are close to becoming addicts.”

Sad as it is to imagine a country full of repressed Koreans, all snorting crystal meth like it’s candy, suffering from addiction, dental evisceration and mental decay, it’s even sadder to consider the reason why they’re doing it. Drug use is commonly a way for people to escape from reality and this case is no exception.

Whether they understand it or not, the meth epidemic in North Korea is likely a result of the shit conditions these people have to deal with every single day. Their reality is a grim one, a dark and tyrannized existence, that meth probably makes a hell of a lot more tolerable.