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South Korea to legalize medical cannabis

By Meg Ellis
Nov 29, 2018

South Korea’s National Assembly voted to approve amendments in the central government’s stance on medical marijuana, making South Korea the first country in East Asia to legalize the drug for medicinal reasons.

The South Korean National Assembly approved amendments to the Act on the Management of Narcotic Drugs, which previously prescribed harsh punishments against the use of any drugs, including non-hallucinogenic medical cannabis.

While medical marijuana will still be provided on a rigidly restricting basis, this law is being hailed as a breakthrough for East Asia.

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This decision to allow certain patients to receive medical marijuana puts South Korea ahead of Thailand, the East Asian country many political-pot betters were sure would be the first to legalize marijuana use.

“South Korea legalizing medical cannabis, even if it will be tightly controlled with limited product selection, represents a significant breakthrough for the global cannabis industry,” Vijay Sappani, CEO of Toronto-based Ela Capital, said in a statement.

“The importance of Korea being the first country in East Asia to allow medical cannabis at a federal should not be understated. Now it’s a matter of when other Asian countries follow South Korea, not if” Sappani concluded.

What will the amendments allow for in South Korea?

The update to the Act on the Management of Narcotic Drugs to allow non-hallucinogenic dosages of medical marijuana comes months after South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said it would allow cannabis-based drugs such as Epidiolex, Marinol, Cesamet, and Sativex for such conditions as epilepsy, symptoms of HIV/AIDS, and cancer-related treatments.

Patients interested in receiving medical marijuana must apply to the Korea Orphan Drug Center, a governmental agency tasked with facilitating patient access to rare and specific medication. Approval will be granted on a case-by-case basis.

Considering South Korea’s previous punitive stance on cannabis use, this announcement comes as even more of a surprise. Before the legalization of medical marijuana, South Koreans faced up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 50 million won ($44,000) for growing, using, or transporting marijuana under the country’s strict narcotics laws.

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For example, following the legalization of cannabis in Canada, South Korea’s government warned citizens traveling to the Great White North not to indulge in pot use while traveling there.

“Even if South Koreans are in a region where marijuana is legal, it will be illegal for them to consume it,” the South Korean Embassy in Canada said on Twitter. “Please take care not to commit an illegal act and be punished.”

South Koreans are subject to their country’s criminal code wherever they are in the world, and the country is known for rigorously enforcing their anti-drug regulations. The police reported 8,887 cases of narcotics crimes in 2017. An increase from the 5,699 cases reported in 2014. Of those arrests in 2017, 1,044 South Korean citizens were booked for marijuana-related charges, a 49 percent increase from 2014.

Park Chung-hee, a military dictator, banned cannabis in South Korea in the 1970s. This announcement marks the modernization of marijuana regulations across the globe and marks how the political perception of pot is changing in traditionally conservative societies.

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