On November 23rd, 2018 South Korea’s National Assembly passed a bill by a margin of 205 to 1 in favor of amending the country’s Narcotics Control Act to allow for the limited use of medical cannabis. This bold act makes South Korea the first East Asian, and the second Asian nation, to approve the use of medical marijuana - and it could spur action in some other Asian nations that have been looking to do the same. Legalizing medical cannabis in South Korea could also have major cultural implications, given cannabis is currently viewed extremely negatively and punished severely in the country.

Continue Reading Below

Cannabis in South Korea

Hemp, locally known as daema, grew in Korea for thousands of years. And in traditional Chinese medicine hemp seeds are used as laxatives. 

But in 1957 South Korea’s newly established Narcotics Control Act listed marijuana as a “forbidden narcotic” alongside cocaine, opium and poppies. And after experiencing a major taste of the West’s hippie movement during the 1960s, military dictator Park Chung-hee passed the 1976 Cannabis Control Act, completely prohibiting all forms of cannabis, putting strict limitations on the hemp industry and restricting hemp research. 

Over the years the Cannabis Control Act has been amended six times, most recently in 1998. But currently, people caught smoking marijuana can face up to five years in prison and $44,000 USD in fines. And people considered habitually involved with illegal cannabis can even be sentenced to death, though by the books this has never occurred.

Continue Reading Below

Sunset at Seoul City Skyline,South Korea iStock / Reabirdna

The cannabis laws in South Korea are so strict they even apply to Koreans abroad. According to the Korean Times when Canada recently legalized recreational cannabis, Yoon Se-jin, head of the Narcotics Crime Investigation Division at Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency, sent a warning to Koreans in Canada, saying, “Weed smokers will be punished according to the Korean law, even if they did so in countries where smoking marijuana is legal.”

So what is a country so dead set against cannabis and marijuana doing legalizing medical cannabis?

In 2015 a medical cannabis bill was firmly rejected citing a general lack of social consensus. But since then the number of people caught smuggling medical cannabis products into South Korea rose sharply, from six cases in 2015 to some 80 cases in 2017. And some of these cases were not only high profile but also tugged at heartstrings, like the stories of two mothers caught importing medical cannabis products for their sick children.

Continue Reading Below

Amongst growing interest surrounding medical cannabis a civic group known as the Korea Medical Cannabis Organization, alongside Democratic Party of Korea representative Shin Chang-Hyun, brought a new bill to the country’s National Assembly in November 2017. And although it took a while, this time around things have clearly gone much better than in 2015.

Now that the bill has been approved by the National Assembly it will have to pass muster with the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, who will set the specific terms of who can get medical cannabis and how. After that, the bill and its attached regulations will have to be approved by the State Council and then finally signed into effect by the President. 

Cultural Shifts

Seoul: Pretty girls wearing Korean traditional dress Hanbok and using smartphone in Gyeongbokgung Palace. Girls taking pictures. iStock / efired

Given the harsh punishments surrounding its possession, cultivation, and use— plus what some Korean’s remember about a brutal crackdown involving more than 50 famous South Korean entertainers in the winter of 1975— it’s no wonder generations of South Koreans grew up with a negative perception of cannabis.

But could the legalization and successful implementation of medical cannabis help slowly shift negative cultural perceptions?

Well, a few factors may work in favor of changing perceptions, such as the fact that many younger Koreans have spent time abroad for University, likely exposing them to cannabis and cannabis culture. From 2012 to 2013 some 70,000 South Korean students studied on U.S. campuses.

There’s also the fact that as developed nations around the world continue to legalize medical, and even recreational, cannabis the global stigma associated with it is slowly diminishing. When it came to why it was time to legalize medical cannabis, according to The Korean Herald the country’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety cited, “international acceptance of medical marijuana” as one of their reasons.

But despite these factors and impending medical legalization, most South Koreans will probably continue to avoid cannabis until the Cannabis Control Act and the Narcotics Control Act undergo some major changes. And right now there’s no known talk of legalizing cannabis outright or even reducing the penalties associated with it.

“Cannabis has been strictly illegal for almost 50 years and people have been brainwashed that it is a critical drug like meth or heroin. And because all research has been banned, people and the government have almost no real knowledge of cannabis,”

says Yun Huh, Executive Director of the Korea Cannabinoid Association.

“People thoughts are changing step by step with education but it will take a lot of time to change people’s minds.”

A Regional Inspiration

If South Korea successfully establishes their medical cannabis system it will be the first East Asian nation to do so, the second nation in Asia after Israel. This could have major implications for their neighbors, many of which are also looking to legalize medical cannabis.

According to the South China Morning Post, on November 9th a draft bill looking to allow the limited use of medical marijuana was passed to Thailand’s military junta’s National Legislative Assembly. The bill flew past Thailand’s legislature by a vote of 145:1 and medical marijuana could become legal as early as the end of December. Thai researchers are also knee-deep in clinical trials investigating the effects of at least four cannabis-based medications to provide patients. And American-based Grand View Research estimates Thailand’s medical marijuana market could be worth $55.8 USD by 2025

Malaysia has also made major headway towards medical cannabis legalization and changing cultural stigmas by removing the death penalty associated with all drug charges this October. Now Malaysian Cabinet officials are rumored to be in preliminary legalization discussions. 

Japan is also slowly eking their way towards legalizing medical cannabis by allowing 40 farmers to grow cannabis crops for research into cannabinoids. And earlier this year Sri Lanka announced plans to grow 25,000 kg/year of cannabis for use in Ayurveda healing and export to North America. Even Singapore, which still carries the death penalty for drug offenses, initiated a program last January to develop new synthetic ways to produce national strains of medical cannabinoids.

While it’s hard to predict the trickle down effect, it’s only logical that if things go well in South Korea it could help reassure other several other Asian nations, especially those with the legalization wheel already in motion. And by being quick to the draw South Korea could become a regional leader in medical cannabis if they’re able to get their market up and running soon.

“In legalizing medical marijuana and implementing legalization in a thoughtful manner, Korea has the opportunity to be a global leader in medical cannabis treatment of the world’s most serious illnesses,”

says Ken Richards, co-founder of Canadian York Bridge Capital, a firm that will work alongside Israel’s Tikun Olam, Ltd. to supply South Korea’s medical cannabis stock. 

Cautious Optimism 

Korean won bills iStock / ma-no

Despite the celebrations, some civic groups have pointed out that the newly proposed medical cannabis system in South Korea is already deeply flawed.

For starters, the system is skewed sharply towards servicing the wealthy, explains Huh with the KCA: “I’ve heard medical cannabis costs may be around $30,000 USD per year.”

Huh adds cannabis products will only be provided by the Korea Orphan Drug Center, KODC, a very expensive center located in Gangnam, a wealthy part of Seoul.

“This is very prohibitive for people who live far away from Seoul or don’t have the money for the costs of the medicine,” he says.

On top of the expense and inconvenience of the KODC will only stock four ingestible cannabis-based products— Sativex, Epidolex, Marinol and Cesamet— products approved for medical use in Europe, the U.K. or the United States for the treatment of forms of epilepsy and wasting syndrome related to cancer and HIV/AIDS. That’s a limited range of drugs to treat a limited number of conditions, meaning only some medical cannabis patients will have access to their desired meds.

 And even though initial reports claimed the KODC would be supplying patients with medical cannabis as soon as January 2019, Huh notes the government recently said they’d need at least three more months to ready new regulations. That would push the first access date back to March, Huh says, and that’s a long time to wait for some people. 

A Slow but Steady Road Ahead

South Korea’s medical cannabis industry clearly has a few challenging roadblocks ahead like patient access and overcoming negative cultural perceptions. But if things go well the long-term payoff could be huge, not only for long awaiting South Korean patients but potentially patients in other Asian nations as well.

Huh says it will probably take time for the government to settle on medical cannabis regulations and even longer for them to settle on terms that provide fair access to all medical cannabis patients in South Korea. But he adds that November’s vote was a very good first step and his organization will keep fighting with the government until they get fair regulations.

If things do go smoothly with the State Council, President, and Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, some South Korean patients could receive their medications as early as March. And regardless of the potential setbacks still ahead, that’s one radically positive move in a country, and continent, staunchly set against cannabis of all forms for half a century or more.