[The Korea Herald] Is Korea’s drug policy working?

By John Power 

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)

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 onlyillegal 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.” 


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