Drugs in South Korea: A Silent Crisis

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In 2014, pop star Park Bom, of the group 2NE1 made headlines with her alleged drug usage back in October 2010. The singer had ordered 82 amphetamine pills labelled ‘gummy bears’ from the U.S. and dispatched them to her grandmother’s address in the port city of Incheon near Seoul.

The police verified that she had taken only 4 of the pills, the singer pleaded for leniency based on her prior use of the medication while residing in the U.S., and eventually her case was dropped. But much controversy trailed Park, owing to the the public’s lack of knowledge of and demonization of narcotics. The media and the public were quick to denounce Park as a ‘drug addict.’

Only after the damage was done, Dispatch – a popular online tabloid – clarified amphetamine’s status as a prescription medication in the U.S. and Canada. (Amphetamines including Adderall – commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder in the U.S. — are also banned in Japan).

I don’t condone what Park did, but she isn’t the only one to break, unwittingly or otherwise, South Korea’s strict ban on drugs.

South Korea’s reputation as a drug-free nation is in danger. The number of students, housewives and ‘ordinary people’ using drugs has been rising steadily. It’s not just celebrities who make headlines by indulging in a joint while on vacation in California (e.g. male K-pop stars who show off freshly shorn scalps when re-entering the country; it can be a strategy for bypassing drug tests on hair) — but also ordinary Kims and Lees who make the news.

11,916 arrests were made in relation to drug-related crimes in 2015, a record number in this nation. According to South Korea’s largest daily Chosun Ilbo, the numbers of investment bankers arrested for drug offences has increased from 4 in 2010 to 18 in 2015; ‘salarymen’ from 115 to 514; and students from 92 to 139. Interestingly many of the perpetrators are middle aged; more than half of all drug-related crimes are committed by those in their 30’s and 40’s. There are also increasing reports of fishermen, farmers and married couples becoming addicted to illegal substances. Drug addiction appears to transcend class, gender, profession and income levels – a rarity in South Korea.

So what is going on?

Some history

The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) has been growing on the Korean peninsula for as long as Korea’s written history. Hemp fiber was traditionally woven into sambe, an ivory-tinted fabric. The cloth is widely associated with traditional funeral clothing, even though in reality it is a fairly recent custom originating from the colonization period. The plant is still grown and spun in the countryside, despite a strict ban on consuming or smoking its leaves.

By the end of the 19th century, opium had entered the Korean peninsula and its usage increased during the next half century, impacted by the use of medical morphine, endorsement of opium plantations by Japanese imperialists, as well as the return of Korean-Chinese citizens with an opiate habit, following the country’s independence in 1945

The American push for opium control brought the Narcotics Act into effect in 1957, which was then complemented by the 1970 Act on Habit-Forming Medicine to deal with the surge in methadone and barbiturates use in the 1960s; the Cannabis Control Act in 1976; the 1980 Toxic Chemicals Control Act and Psychotropic Substance Control Act in order to cope with the superglue and butane gas consumption as well as the introduction of methamphetamines, respectively.

In 2000, a comprehensive Narcotics Act encompassing narcotics, cannabis and psychotropics came into force. Meanwhile, all South Koreans were finally given, in 1989, the right to freely travel internationally, a freedom which also entailed the smuggling of various narcotics, such as cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), and yaba (an amphetamine).

Winds of change are blowing

Until a decade ago, drugs were portrayed as existing in the realm of celebrities, gang members and crime films. Drug use is still frowned upon in South Korea, whether it be narcotics, psychotropics, or cannabis derivatives (the three categories used by the government). Due to the limited supply, mainstream youth culture doesn’t (or rather, cannot) find drugs ‘cool,’ as the atmosphere may be in some other nations, and there is no widespread pressure to “just try it,” simply because most teenagers do not have access to illegal substances. (Peer pressure is usually applied with cigarettes and alcohol.)

However, with continuous exposure to Western cultures that are more lenient on drug use, combined with the freedom of international travel, a growing number of youth are visiting countries where drugs may be easier to find, and sometimes, bringing back various amounts.

As a university student in Seoul, I was surprised to witness this shift. I was offered a chance to buy marijuana, was invited to a pot party, smelled the dank scent of hash in an underground concert venue, and have seen young people close to me recount their experience with LSD, ecstasy, mushrooms, and cannabis – all of it in South Korea, all of it in company of people I would consider middle or upper-middle class. (For the record, I declined all invitations because I have asthma.)

Jack was a Korean-American student from California. Mixing bravado with what appeared to be a great deal of exaggeration, he told me he had brought back cannabis a couple of times from Australia, concealed inside a bottle of hair gel. He confidently added: “If I brought it to your house and we smoked it together and the cops passed by, they wouldn’t be able to tell what’s going on because they just don’t know what it smells like.”

I believed that last part. How are the police supposed to bust something which is recognized by its smell but so rarely smoked that most people don’t even know what it smells like? But the rest sounded too good to be true – bringing drugs into South Korea was only possible with gangs moving in stealth on a pier in Busan, I thought.

That was, until one night, a South Korean friend of mine called me and yelled “Emily! We’re on campus smoking pot Jack got us from Sydney! This is amaaazing!”

That raised an eyebrow.

A few months later, a mutual friend of Jack’s and mine, asked whether I’d be willing to have some people over to “drink some wine and smoke a little.” (I said no.) Sometime that same year, an American exchange student I bumped into at a student bar casually mentioned that he was thinking about buying “a few grams” from Jack.

It was then that two questions came to mind: Is this a wider social trend, and if so, what kind of drugs are out there?

Gamut of choices

Sometimes legal products are used for their hallucinogenic effect: superglue (bondeu in Korean) and butane gas (sold in small canisters, used to fire up small cooking burners at home and restaurants). While it’s an everyday item, superglue contains toluene, a substance favored by teenagers without the means to purchase ‘real’ drugs and looking for a quick high. The issue has persisted for so long that minors are banned from purchasing super glue due to amendments made to the Youth Protection Act in the late 1990s.

Then there are the powerful prescription-only drugs such as Zolpidem (more commonly known in South Korea as Stilnox), Rohypnol (“roofie”), GHB (mulppong), and ketamine, which are illegally sold and used as “date rape drugs.” The first two are intended for treating insomnia, and the latter two are used for alcoholism and as an anesthetic, respectively.

Propofol, an anesthetic IV drip, was classified as a psychotropic substance in 2011 after a public scandal and news coverage in 2009 escalated – some doctors were found to have unethically marketed the product as a “sleeping aid which helps your skin recover faster and cures fatigue” to thousands of women. Many customers were in the performing arts or the sex industry and thus highly concerned with their looks.

Propofol is also an expensive drug, costing anywhere from 100,000 KRW to five times that per unit when purchased and injected at clinics, and its casual users also included medical doctors, nurses and a Korean-American television personality Amy, who was eventually deported to the U.S. (Before deportation, she was also charged with illegally obtaining dozens of Zolpidem tablets from an acquaintance.)

For a time Propofol became so popular that it was dubbed the “milk shot,” after the color of the drug. One media outlet reported middle-aged women were walking around the wealthy Gangnam district of Seoul, offering women IV drips at a much lower market price than hospitals or clinics did.

Psychotropics, a category that encompasses LSD, ketamine and methamphetamine, are by far the most popular substances of choice – it’s the reason why South Koreans associate the word ‘drugs’ with needles rather than puffs of smoke. And among all the psychotropics, one that is most imprinted on South Koreans’ minds is methamphetamine – more commonly called pilopon (after the Japanese word hiropon).

According to Yonhap News, 11,916 people were arrested in 2015 for drug-related crimes; 9,624 of them were psychotropic substance users or dealers. (Only about 1,100 arrests were for cannabis derivatives.) Nearly 80% of the narcotics confiscated by the Korea Customs Service were methamphetamines.

Even recently there have been several cases of middle-aged men causing traffic accidents under the influence of methamphetamine. One of them involved a 50-year-old truck driver who said he believed it would keep him awake during his long hours on the highway.

With such a wide range of choices and motivations, logically, the next questions are how South Koreans obtain drugs and to what end they are used.

In the second part of Emily Singh’s look at drugs in South Korea, she will discuss myriad distribution channels and how the South Korean government is attempting to deal with the problem of expanding drug use.

Cover image: “Drug” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by obviously_c

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