SEOUL, June 9 (Korea Bizwire) – Smoking marijuana is no joke in South Korea.
Despite its growing medicinal applications and lenient approach (regardless of its legality) towards possession and consumption in more than a few countries, marijuana is treated by the Act on the Control of Narcotics as an equal alongside other, sometimes heavier, substances like heroin, opium and cocaine.
The law even became stricter this month with a revision banning advertisements of narcotics (including weed) and sharing methods of drug-making processes – acts that will be punishable by up to three years of imprisonment or 30 million won ($26,754) in fines.
Cannabis has once again come into the national spotlight after T.O.P, a member of K-pop boyband Big Bang, was indicted earlier this week by the police for allegedly vaping liquid marijuana four times with a 21-year-old prospective female singer in October of last year.
The 29-year-old rapper, who was hospitalized on June 6 after an apparent overdose of prescribed tranquilizer, may face up to five years in prison or 50 million won in fines, although he could get away with a suspended sentence if the court finds him guilty of only one instance of smoking, as the singer initially claimed.
The public was quick to condemn the singer for his drug use, which would have settled for gossip in a more cannabis-generous country overseas, while at the same time questioning the management competency of Big Bang’s talent agency, YG Entertainment.
In 2011, another Big Bang member, G-Dragon, admitted to having unknowingly smoked marijuana after being offered a joint by a fan at a club in Japan, while in 2010, Park Bom of 2NE1 was caught bringing in 82 pills of amphetamines from the United States through international mail. Both YG singers were ultimately not indicted, despite facing a strong backlash from the public.
Numerous South Korean celebrities have suffered similar scandals, and sometimes prison time, including Gangnam Style star PSY, rappers E Sens and Crown J, singer-songwriter Cho Yong-pil, and comedian and TV host Shin Dong-yup. The offenders, accepting society’s unforgiving attitude towards drug use, had to voluntarily, or involuntarily, ban themselves from the show business for months, if not years.
Arguments for decriminalizing marijuana were widely publicized in 2004, when actress Kim Bu-seon, who had been arrested multiple times for possession of marijuana, officially challenged the constitution.
Kim claimed that the punishment of marijuana users in South Korea is too severe, and violates the right to the public’s pursuit of happiness, citing the substance’s negligible impact on the body. Her crusade was also endorsed by late singer Shin Hae-chul.
The Constitutional Court, however, ruled against the appeal in the following year in a unanimous decision, stating that the “legalization of marijuana could lead to more dangerous consequences than alcohol and cigarettes, including violent crimes while under the influence.”
A decade after the court’s verdict, authorities and civic organizations here, including the Korea Association against Drug Abuse, hold on to their arguments against marijuana’s legalization, and their position is firmly endorsed by society.
With South Korea experiencing an increasing number of drug-related crimes in recent years, the debate over the decriminalization of marijuana is not likely to take a new turn for the time being, industry watchers anticipate.
Last year, South Korea saw the number of drug criminals surge by 20 percent compared to 2015, to 14,214. It also lost its status as a United Nations-designated “drug-free nation,” recognizing countries with fewer than three drug criminals for every 10,000 inhabitants.
During a nationwide narcotics crackdown spearheaded by the National Korean Police Agency, from February to April this year, officials made 2,064 arrests, 12.8 percent of which were marijuana-related. The number of arrests were also higher than last year’s at 1,956.
“Authorities are taking a stern approach recently towards drug abuse, threatened by an increasing number of narcotics crimes,” said lawyer Chang Hoon from Taeshin Law Firm, in an interview with the Korea News System. “Drug crimes often result in prison sentences due to their addictive nature and repeated offenses.”
By Joseph Shin (firstname.lastname@example.org)