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South Korea

Legislation History

On Nov. 23, 2018, South Korea became the first East Asian country to legalize cannabis-based medical products, albeit with heavy regulation.

The South Korean National Assembly approved amendments to the Narcotic Drug Management Act to allow patients with diseases documented to be alleviated through the use of medical cannabis to have legal access to a few cannabis products. The decision reversed decades of strict prohibitions and heavy sentences against cannabis use.

South Korea criminalized cannabis along with poppies, opium, and cocaine in 1957, although at the time the ban applied only to Indian-grown marijuana, allowing the Korean market of cannabis to grow. In the 1960s, cannabis use rose. The government began cracking down on smokers in the 1970s. In 1976, the Cannabis Control Act singled out marijuana and outlawed smoking and possession of all cannabis.

Since then, attempts to reform the drug laws have fallen short. However, in January 2018, Shin Chang-hyun, of the Democratic Party, introduced the new legislation.

In part, the translated revision said that while it is necessary to regulate the hallucinogenic and addictive effects of hemp, certain medicinal use should be considered to be allowed.

Medical Cannabis

A few cannabis products are now legal.

The only qualifying conditions as of March 2019 are two forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes. The only currently allowed product was Epidiolex , an FDA-approved cannabidiol.

However, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said in July 2018 it would permit Epidiolex, Marinol , and Cesamet for weight loss or nausea from HIV/AIDS and cancer-related treatments, and Sativex for symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Patients must apply to the government with a doctor’s prescription, medical records, and a qualifying condition to be approved by the government on a case-by-case basis. Then they may order online through the Korea Orphan Drug Center, a government organization that arranges access to rare medicines. The medicine must be picked up at the center’s offices in Seoul. Those outside the region must travel.

Adult-Use Cannabis

South Korea has a history of strict laws and enforcement of marijuana offenses and has no provisions to allow adult-use cannabis. Smokers can face five years in prison and fines of more than $40,000, or more than $50 million won. The government has said it will arrest citizens for using marijuana in Canada and other places where recreational cannabis is legal.

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Marijuana – A Risky Pastime in South Korea

Marijuana – A Risky Pastime in South Korea

Something that many of us don’t think about before we leave our home countries to teach abroad is – different countries have very different laws.

Things that we take for granted as being “not really a big deal” can carry steep penalties when we are outside of our home countries.

A big one – marijuana use. For many in North America it just makes the list of controlled substances with the use of medicinal marijuana being somewhat commonplace and mostly accepted – in Canada at least.

Hop on the plane from here to South Korea and everything changes. Cannabis use, in all forms, is strictly forbidden in South Korea and you risk imprisonment and hefty fines if you are caught. Something else that is different – you do not have to be found in possession of it. Police have the right to search you anytime they choose and they will test your urine or hair follicles for the presence of THC. If it’s there – well….that’s it, you’re off to prison.

The Korean DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) have even been known to enter clubs and do hair follicle or urine tests on the spot to determine if you have any drugs in your system. If you do, no questions, no time, you’re done.

We have heard reports from one of our teachers that a fellow teacher of his was busted by the Korean police for marijuana. Apparently he had been teaching in Korea for six years and had a job at a university, which is the most coveted type of position. That gravy train has come to an end for him. No more 8 month working year for good pay. No more cheap Asian travel. No more good, cheap Korean food.

We cannot confirm it but we were told that he was sentenced…to twenty years. Yes…there may have been extenuating circumstances, it may have been from something more than just testing positive for THC but the fact remains that it is a risky endeavor to partake in cannabis use in South Korea.

There is a lesson in all of this. When you are living abroad, don’t screw around. If you don’t know the laws where you are – find out! Here’s a first hand account of someone that was randomly tested due to social affiliations and thrown in prison – Click here to read article

Like South Korea, laws are different other countries in Asia and South America and whether you understand them or not doesn’t matter – they are enforced. In 2005 a Canadian ESL teacher Taiwan was charged with drug possession and faced the death penalty. He was caught with more than just marijuana but it certainly shows how the laws differ – Click here to read article

Don’t waste the best years of your life on something as simple or stupid as smoking pot in another country. The rules and levels of acceptance are different in the West but you’re there, not here.

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Something that many of us don’t think about before we leave our home countries to teach abroad is – different countries have very different laws. Things that we take for granted as being “not really a big deal” can carry steep penalties when we are outside of our home countries. A big one – marijuana use. For many in North America it just makes the list of controlled substances with the use of medicinal marijuana being somewhat commonplace and mostly accepted – in Canada at least.