The Republic of Korea revised its national drug policy this past weekend, passing a bill that allows cannabis-based oil to be imported and distributed solely for medicinal purposes.

Ministry officials passed the Amendment to the Act on the Management of Narcotic Drugs after “considering international trends and the requests of patients.”

The revised law only allows for the import of oils containing the cannabidiol, a cannabinoid more commonly known as CBD. The Korea Orphan Drug Center will monitor and control all CBD drugs entering the country, and any substance containing THC is still expressly forbidden. In order to get access to cannabidiol under the revised Korean law, patients must obtain a letter from their physician that describes their diagnosis and explains why CBD oil is the best treatment. That letter must then be taken to Seoul for approval and distribution, which will be carried out by the Korea Orphan Drug Center, a government-funded nonprofit agency.

Until now, South Korea has been known for its vehement opposition to the drug, going so far as to prosecute citizens for using it while traveling in countries where cannabis is legal. Some members of the South Korean government are still holding fast to the country’s draconian view of cannabis, but their attitude has done nothing to dissuade Korean citizens from trying to get their hands on the drug. According to data from the Korea Customs Service (KCS), 70 kg of contraband was smuggled into the country in 2017, and 13.6 kg of that contraband was marijuana or marijuana-related products. More drugs than ever before were smuggled into South Korea last year, and cannabis held the high honor of being the second most commonly smuggled drug in the bunch (first place went to methamphetamine). Drug smuggling increased 12 percent from the previous year, adding up to 88 billion won (or $82.3 million dollars).

“The law doesn’t reflect what’s going on outside Korea or help sick people who need medical help.” said Kang Sung-Suk of the Organization of Legalizing Medical Cannabis in Korea before the bill was passed. Only 1% of drug arrests in Korea are for the possession of cannabis, but the country has seen a marked increase in the number of people trying to smuggle cannabidiol into the country. 38 people were reportedly arrested after trying to sneak CBD oil into South Korea within the first six months of 2018, which is six more people than had tried to do the same thing last year. The amendment to Korea’s drug laws shows that the appeal of cannabis’ medical use to Koreans far outweighs the draw it has as an illicit substance.

The amendment to the National Drug Control Law was first submitted to Korea’s National Assembly in January by representative Shin Chang-Hyun, a member of South Korea’s ruling Democratic party. Until now cannabis has been subject to the strict rules outlined in the Narcotics Control Act, which criminalizes the trade, processing, and commercialization of cannabis except for its stems, seeds, and matured stalks. That same law allows medical professionals to prescribe highly addictive substances like opium, morphine, and cocaine.

Chang-Hyun, who represents a suburb outside of Seoul, argued that the current law unfairly punishes South Koreans trying to take advantage of marijuana’s medical benefits. “The law strictly forbids the sale and purchase of cannabis,” Rep. Shin said after submitting the revision bill, “which led to a recent case of a mother being arrested and sentenced in court for buying cannabis oil from abroad to treat her son with brain cancer.”

Rep. Shin went on to describe the health benefits of cannabis, referring to recent studies done in other nations.  “It is known that cannabis oil is a drug that has been proven to be effective against other drugs, such as narcotics,” said Shin. Rep. Shin also cited CBD’s proven potential to treat a number of diseases. “CBD has been tested in the U.S., Canada, and Germany and proven efficacy in neurological and brain diseases such as brain metastasis, autism, and dementia in clinical trials.”

As recently as springtime this year, many members of government were still vehemently opposed to the substance.  A Ministry of Food and Drug Safety official attending a conference in March 2018 said of South Korean’s attitude toward cannabis, “We need to work with the bias that many Koreans still think cannabis and marijuana are the same thing.” It looks like that bias is changing, albeit slowly.

Logan Guntzelman