The Korea Herald


[Voice] Is Korea’s drug policy working?

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 20, 2012 - 20:35

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With drug abuse having spread to more sectors of society ...
Is Korea’s drug policy working?

If law enforcement figures are any guide, Korea’s illegal drug problem pales in comparison with much of the rest of the world. There were 7,011 arrests for drug offenses in 2011, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, a 7 percent drop from the previous year. The U.S., by way of comparison, in 2010 made more than 1.6 million drug arrests, more than 36 times Korea’s figure, even after differences in population are accounted for.

“Korea is a relatively drug-free country,” said Hwang Sung-hyun, a professor of criminology at Cyber University. “Internationally, the qualification of a drug-free country is whether there are more than 10,000 narcotics-related convicts. In the case of Korea, from 1999 to 2002, the number reached more than 10,000 for four consecutive years, but from 2003 to 2006, the number was reduced to 7,000 and in 2007, the numbers again reached more than 10,000.” 
(Jakub Jirsah/123 rf) (Jakub Jirsah/123 rf)

Korea’s relationship with illegal substances, however, has evolved in the last two decades to present new challenges to the authorities. From the 1990s, the range of available drugs increased to include Yaba, LSD, Ecstasy and Nalbuphine hydrochloride, according to “Drug Control Policy in Korea,” a 2004 report by Cho Byung-in, a senior research fellow at the Korean Institute of Criminology. The profile of the average user also became harder to predict. Where drug abuse had been seen as largely confined to the criminal and entertainment worlds, by the turn of the century drug users included significant numbers of salaried workers, housewives, students and farmers. The response from the authorities to these trends has been tough by the standards of almost anywhere. The Act on the Control of Narcotics of 2000 allows for habitual sellers of banned substances to receive the death penalty, while smuggling can carry life imprisonment.

War on drugs

Tough punishment is an important part of the country’s anti-drugs strategy, according to the KIC’s Cho, who described the country’s drug laws as “sufficiently strict and effective.”

“Despite the fact that no state has yet been fully successful in the ‘war on drugs,’ I believe that not only illegal drug traffickers but also illegal users should be strictly punished to maximize the deterrence effect,” said Cho, who pointed to last year’s drop in drug arrests as evidence of effective enforcement.

Social pressures may also play their part in keeping drug use relatively contained. That Korea could be classified as drug-free may be down to culture more than effective law enforcement.

“(The) war on drugs is almost an annual event whenever drug usage becomes a social problem,” said Hwang. “(But) I don’t think it’s necessarily effective. The reason why Korea is a drug-free country is the result of the people’s strong rejection of dealers and suppliers, not because of a strong and effective drug policy, necessarily.”

Whatever their effectiveness, punitive legal approaches to fighting drugs remain the source of ideological debate across the world. Critics of the war on drugs in the U.S. and elsewhere argue that harsh laws do more to put non-violent people in prison than reduce drug abuse.

In recent years, liberalization has taken place in a number of jurisdictions including California, Argentina, the Czech Republic and Portugal, which in 2001 became the first country in Europe to end all criminal sanctions for personal drug use.

Hwang said it was necessary to form a social consensus about what substances should and should not be legal. But, he said, Korean society was not ready for the kind of liberalization seen elsewhere.

“Marijuana is illegal in Korea and the States but many European countries legalized it for a time, and even in the States, criminologists have been discussing legalizing it recently. In the case of Korea, (choosing) which drugs should be (considered) psychotropic drugs must be considered with the general consent of the citizens, like the case of marijuana. It is too early to legalize marijuana considering the mood of citizens.”

Part of the impetus for liberalization worldwide has been a drive to treat drug abuse as primarily a public health issue, an approach taken in Portugal and the Netherlands. Too much of a focus on criminal justice, the argument goes, impedes access to treatment for those who need it.

Lack of drug court

Lee Tae-kyung, a doctor at the Department of Mental Hygiene at Seoul National Hospital, said that the scale of drug abuse here may have reached the point where criminal justice solutions are no longer effective.

“While the scale of the illicit drug market is confined to a small level, law enforcement is an effective way to control it,” said Lee. “However, if the number of addicts has increased beyond a certain level, law enforcement is not enough to prevent the drug addiction epidemic.

“Korean society is now entering into a stage that drug abuse should be considered a public health issue. Because drug addiction is a chronic progressive disease, there is a need to support its treatment and rehabilitation.”

Lee said that the absence of a drug court and inconsistent treatment of addicts are major impediments to tackling drug abuse.

“As we don’t have a drug court in the judiciary system, the decisions of courts are inconsistent in illicit drug cases. Although the most important thing in the treatment of drug abuse is that the decision should be timely given, our system does not have contingent plans in order to provide an effective response.”

Convincing people with drug problems to come forward for treatment of their own volition is another challenge, according to Hwang Jae-uk, a professor of psychiatry at Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital in Seoul.

“Most drug abusers do not have insight into their mental illness ― substance abuse or substance dependence. However, some drug abusers want medical and psychiatric treatment voluntarily. But they are afraid of exposing their identity to the authorities … although all the medical records would be kept secret.”

Treatment deficit

Everyone convicted of a drug offense should have access to treatment, added Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital’s Hwang, something that is not currently happening.

“Although there is some medical and psychiatric treatment (available) during punishment, most drug-related criminals are not given the treatment. I think all the drug-related criminals should be evaluated by a psychiatrist and if needed, the treatment for drug abuse and dependence and other psychiatric disorders should be provided by the authorities.”

Cyber University’s Hwang said it was misguided to see drug abuse simply in terms of law and order and not recognize it as a matter of addiction.

“Drug addiction is a psychological, mental phenomenon, thus punishment is not the only answer but treatment must come first. Thus, an effective probation system must be put into place for drug convicts.”

But it is not just in officialdom that change is needed in the response to drug abuse, according to Lee of Seoul National Hospital. A societal change must happen in perceptions of drug addiction.

“People need to change the way they regard those with drug addictions,” said Lee. “People think that drug addiction is just phenomena by which a chemical makes a pharmacological effect in our body.”

However, addiction is a psychiatric disease, which has a variety of symptoms and it is a progressive, chronic, primary disease characterized by compulsion, loss of control, continued drug use despite adverse consequences and distortions in normal thinking, such as denial.”

By John Power (

Readers’ voice

Korea’s drug policy ...

I think it is the social attitude toward drugs that stops people using them more than policies or punishment. There is such a social stigma attached to drug-taking that it largely does the job of enforcement. This may slowly be changing, however.

― Ennten Dal, Jeju City, via Facebook

It seems like they spend too much time fighting issues with drugs and not enough on crimes committed by drunks.

― William Mattiford Jr., Pyeongtaek, via Facebook

You can start by getting rid of the war euphemisms. You don’t need combat, or fighting. You need level-headed thinking. And while you’re at it, why not stop with all the crackdowns?

― Mike Weisbart, Seoul, via Twitter

Police at Haeundae ...

Following a handful of arrests for sexual harassment by migrant laborers at Haeundae beach in Busan, police in the area sent letters to companies that employ migrant laborers asking the firms not to send their workers to the beach for vacation or to split up their vacation period. ― Ed.

Is it not an obvious example of xenophobia and racism? Again? I don’t understand how or why people can be shocked after spending more than a few months here. It’s especially sad after some migrant workers died in a fire after working and subsequently being trapped in the third floor below ground with combustibles at the Seoul Art Museum. Use the labor but don’t allow them anywhere near the society? Disgusted, to say the least.

― Chasity Davis, Seoul, via Facebook

English teaching in Korea ...

With the announcement of the letting go of most native-English-speaking teachers in the middle and high schools of Seoul, and the new (renewed?) focus on grammar and reading, perhaps it’s time for Voice to consider English education in Korea ― success? Failure? Ultimate purpose?

― Brian Arundel, Seoul, via Facebook

Nurturing better Olympians ...

Well to start, every country is good at something at the Olympic Games. Whether it is basketball or speed skating, just like Team USA or South Korea’s favorite, archery and now figure skating. It does not matter. What does matter is being there at the Olympics, athletes who will represent and compete for your country. But that does not mean there is no room for improvement.

For instance, Kim Yu-na at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics was marvelous by setting the world record in a short program by earning a score of 78.50. But, have you ever wondered how she got there? If not, then the answer you are looking for is by practicing. Same goes for archer Ki Bo-bae, she would not have won gold in the individual competition if it were not for her time spent practicing.

And so, in order to have better Olympians, it takes practice to improve oneself. Another idea would be hosting a competition, kind of like Pre-Olympics. By doing this it will give you a general idea on how he or she will do. Then, when the next Olympics comes, your team will be assembled, ready to take home some medals, and take on any challenge that comes their way in the Winter Olympics at Russia in 2014 and the Summer Olympics at Brazil in 2016!

― Jeremy Buhain, Reno, Nevada, United States