Two weeks ago, South Korea voted to legalize medicinal cannabis within its borders, making it the first country in East Asia to allow cannabis-based drugs and marking shifting domestic attitudes toward the plant. It’s an incremental but significant change, and in a nation with a traditionally hard-line attitude toward cannabis, it arrives along with a degree of cultural confusion—not least among college students who spend time in nations where recreational cannabis consumption is common, such as the United States.
The South Korean National Assembly voted on November 23 to amend the current Narcotic Drug Management Act, to allow patients with diseases proven to be alleviated through the use of medicinal cannabis to have lawful access to some cannabis products, starting next year. But it was a difficult fight to win approval. In South Korea, cannabis, known officially as daemacho or colloquially as ddul, has a reputation as a hard drug on par with methamphetamine and heroin. Smokers are punished with up to five years in prison or a fine of 50 million won (around $44,000).
And even if Korean citizens consume cannabis abroad, in a place where it is legal, they can still be punished according to South Korean laws once they return home—a fact that many Korean students studying in the United States are deeply aware of. Such students say that most people back home hold severely negative perceptions towards cannabis, especially for recreational use.
For thousands of years, the cannabis plant grew on South Korean soil. In the second half of the 20th Century, however, cannabis first became criminalized—along with poppies, opium, and cocaine—in 1957 under The Narcotics Act, the bill that was amended last week to allow for the use of medicinal cannabis in South Korea. In the winter of 1975, former South Korean ruler Park Chung-hee led a major crackdown on recreational cannabis smokers, followed by years of a fierce PR campaign that depicted cannabis as a threat to the Korean people, according to a report by Korea Exposé. In 1976, the Cannabis Control Act was passed, outlawing the smoking and possession of all cannabis in South Korea. Park’s actions and the law engraved in the minds of South Koreans the idea that cannabis was an unforgivable narcotic.
Since 1976, there have been few attempts to reform the laws surrounding cannabis in South Korea. In January of this year, however, Shin Chang-hyun, a Democratic member of the National Assembly in South Korea, with eleven other members of the National Assembly, proposed the bill that would allow the use of cannabis for medical purposes. “It started with a high-profile case of a mother last year who was caught trying to smuggle cannabis oil into South Korea for her sick child,” said Im Hyun-jong, the Chief Secretary for Assemblymember Shin Chang-hyun. “We decided that we would push for this bill after thinking of the families who were willing to break laws and face the consequences in order to bring back medicinal cannabis for their family members who were ill.”
“There needs to be due caution when it comes to drugs such as opium, morphine, cocaine, and cannabis,” Im continued, “but because of the cultural stigma in Korea” toward cannabis “there is a strong antipathy towards medicinal cannabis, and that is why it was prohibited until now.”
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“South Korean people think cannabis is demonic,” said Dae Lim, a Korean-American who moved to the United States from South Korea when he was fourteen years old. “And because of limited availability and limited first hand experiences, there’s obviously a lot of uncertainty about it.”
Lim says he grew up thinking of cannabis as “the devil’s lettuce,” and was never exposed to it in South Korea. So when he came to the United States to attend boarding school in Connecticut as a teenager, he didn’t recognize the smell of cannabis in the dorm rooms. “I would smell skunky stuff and think, ‘Wow there must be skunks in here,’” said Lim.
Today, Dae Lim and his childhood friend Mia Park are the founders of Sundae School, a high fashion (pun intended) “smokewear brand” based in New York, with designs that often combine cannabis imagery and Korean aesthetics. A popular item, for example, is the “Tiger Smoke Hoodie,” which depicts a Siberian tiger, the national animal of South Korea, smoking a blunt.
Lim says the brand is intentionally “irreverent and funny and punny” both in its designs as well as through the events the company hosts, such as high-tea, or a THC-infused Chuseok dinner, a Korean version of Thanksgiving. Part of the idea, Lim and Park say, is to normalize cannabis in popular culture and address stereotypes and misinformation about cannabis use in both the United States and in South Korea.
Lim says that for him, cannabis was one of the most effective ways of transitioning from Korea to the United States. Smoking with classmates was a way to socialize in college and open himself up to a larger group of people who were culturally different from what he was used to back home. “It was a great catalyst to communication and helped me open up to a different comfort zone,” Lim said.
Some South Korean students studying in the United States said they underwent similar experiences when first adjusting to the new environment. But transitioning from a country with such harsh perceptions of cannabis to a college environment where cannabis use is a widely accepted recreational pastime can be confusing. Returning back home during the holidays often adds to the uncertainty.
D. Shin*, a fourth-year student at a university in Massachusetts who was raised in South Korea and came to the United States in 2013 for his studies, says that though he is a regular cannabis user in the United States, he would never think of using it when he visits South Korea during the holidays, because consequences can be so severe.
When he is back in Korea, “I don’t use it at all,” Shin said. “I don’t have any access to it, and I don’t intend on getting any access to it. I guess it all depends on where I am.”
According to a 2004 report released by The International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy, cannabis is the second most “abused” drug next to methamphetamine in Korea—though the numbers are quite low. Between 1997 and 2002, the average number of cannabis-related arrests each year ranged from 1,301 to 2,284, with the highest spike in the year 2000. Arrests for simple cannabis possession in the United States in that same period hovered around 600,000 a year. Putting these numbers into perspective: the United States has around six times the population of South Korea, but 200 times the number of arrests.
The legalization of cannabis in other areas around the world has brought an increase in smuggled cannabis in South Korea, however. The Korea Customs Service said that since California’s legalization of recreational cannabis in January of this year, the organization has seized 18 kilograms of cannabis at ports of entry to South Korea in the first half of this year, more than the total amount of cannabis seized in all of 2017, 13.6 kilograms, according to the organization’s 2017 report.
Meanwhile, there is the question of how South Koreans think about cannabis when they visit countries where it is legal. The government certainly has a strong point of view. In preparation for the legalization of recreational cannabis sales in Canada in October, the Korea Customs Service released a statement this August reminding and warning its citizens that “it will still be illegal for Koreans to smoke cannabis in Canada or anywhere else.” Koreans who do not comply with these expectations could face criminal charges, the statement added. The South Korean embassy in Canada as well as the head of the Narcotics Crime Investigation Division at Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency have issued similar statements.
Despite its warnings, however, exactly how the South Korean government will keep tabs on its citizens’ consumption habits outside the country remains unclear.
With the consequences in mind, Shin is hesitant about even talking about cannabis use with most of his family and friends back home. “In my family, only my brother knows that I smoke, and that’s only because he does it too,” said Shin, who added that a small handful of his Korean friends who attend American universities also know.
Shin says that during his last winter break, when he visited South Korea, he met an old childhood friend, and the topic of cannabis use came up in their conversation. “We talked about our difference in perspective,” said Shin. “His perspective was as someone who would never live anywhere else except South Korea, and I was coming from a more Westernized culture, and I think in that sense I was more open. I explained that there were a lot of misconceptions about cannabis in Korea.” Shin says that as he and his friend ended their conversation, they arrived at a mutual understanding of how their different experiences determined their views on the subject. “You do what you gotta do, and I do what I gotta do,” is what they told each other, Shin said.
The National Assembly’s vote to pass the bill on November 23 will allow certain Korean patients to have limited access to some cannabis-based drugs that have been approved in other countries around the world, though specifics are still under discussion. More information is expected to come from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in coming weeks, but this bill will require the signature of the President before it becomes law. The legal distribution of medicinal cannabis products is expected to begin three months from the bill’s passing, in February of next year.
But getting it will not be easy. Though the details of exactly how patients will be approved to have access to medicinal cannabis products in South Korea are still under discussion, patients who wish to receive cannabis-based drugs will most likely have to first receive a medical prescription, after which they will apply for approval through South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, among other steps. The Korean Orphan Drug Center, a public institution that works to facilitate medical access to patients with rare diseases in South Korea, will be solely responsible for importing the drugs and distributing it to approved patients, according to Doctors News, a South Korean medical journal, as well as discussions between The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and South Korea’s National Assembly in late November and early December.
The restrictive multi-step process through which patients may have to go through in order to receive cannabis-based drugs has been met with criticism from advocates who are pushing for easier access for patients seeking medicinal cannabis treatment in South Korea. Kang Sung-suk, the executive advisor of the Korea Cannabinoid Association and a representative of the Korea Medical Cannabis Organization, believes that if the process under discussion is enforced, it will create a huge obstacle for patients seeking proper medical treatment, because the demand will be too great for a single center, such as the Korean Orphan Drug Center, to handle.
“This is the first time in forty-eight years that medicinal cannabis will be lawful in Korea, and there is only one Korean Orphan Drug Center responsible for the entirety of the distribution,” Kang said “It doesn’t make logical sense.”
The biggest challenge that the Korea Cannabinoid Association has faced in advocating for this bill during the past year and a half, according to Kang, has been dealing with the stigmas associated with anything cannabis-related. Patients can’t be too assertive about advocating for medical cannabis, he said, or “the police or prosecutors or the law enforcement in general might begin to investigate them.”
Negative perceptions of cannabis in Korea not only make patients hesitant to speak out about medicinal cannabis, but have also brought harsh reactions to high-profile individuals who have been charged with cannabis consumption or possession in the past. Such people have included Psy, the “Gangnam Style” sensation who was arrested for smoking and possessing cannabis in 2001 and banned from performing for a period of time; T.O.P, a member of the K-pop group Big Bang, who was charged for cannabis consumption in 2017; and recently Huh Hee-soo, the vice chairman of the SPC Group, a South Korean conglomerate company, who was arrested for the possession and use of “liquid marijuana” this August. Huh was forced to step down from his post in the family-run conglomerate. In all three cases, the individuals made public apologies and expressed remorse over their actions.
N. Kim*, a South Korean student who came to the United States as a freshman in high school says that the only times cannabis is mentioned in the Korean media is in negative stories about high-profile individuals or celebrities who are charged with cannabis use or possession. “It’s always, oh- this celebrity or well-known person used it two or three times and now they’re being punished with thousand-dollar fines or years of prison time,” said Kim. “So I grew up being very shaken up by the consequences” of cannabis consumption. Kim adds that though her perceptions of cannabis have changed since starting college, her mother recently found out that recreational cannabis had been legalized in Massachusetts, where Kim studies, and “freaked out.”
K. Lee*, a Korean student at the School of Visual Arts, said that she sees a lot of Korean students come to the United States who are very curious about cannabis, but also scared to try it. “Even if they do, it’s something they do ‘under the table,’ even though it’s seen as no worse than drinking here,” Lee said, explaining that such people are wary about receiving judgement from those back home, or from more conservative Koreans in their communities in the United States.
The bill’s passing, meanwhile, has been seen as a huge milestone for changing attitudes toward at least medicinal cannabis in the country. Now advocates such as Kang are campaigning to loosen some of the obstacles that patients may face if they try to gain access to the newly legalized medicinal cannabis in South Korea in 2019.
“Just because this bill has been passed does not mean that everything is finished,” Kang said. “We need to continue to move forward in a direction that considers the convenience of the patients.”
*Names of interviewees have been changed to initials due to the risks involved for South Korean citizens who consume cannabis.