After serving his time in jail, the beloved Korean Hip-hop artist E SENS has excited his fans by hinting at a new album. A month earlier, the legendary American rapper Wiz Khalifa finished his sensational concert in Seoul. The one thing these rappers have in common is that both are associated with marijuana. In a country that was once very strict on drugs, it is surely odd to watch two drug icons receiving adoration nationwide. Much has changed, and drugs seem to have slowly entered our daily lives.
It might not be known to many, but June 26 is the International AntiDrug Day. To commemorate this day, the Ulsan District Prosecutor’s Office has announced a special confession period for drug offenders. During this period, people who turn themselves in are allowed to come clean and given the chance to go into rehab rather than receiving punishment. It is an attempt to slow down the wildly increasing number of drug users, which is becoming a severe issue in the Korean society.
According to the Prosecution-Police Joint Drug Investigation Team, South Korea is no longer a drug-free country. By the standards of the United Nations (UN), a country is acknowledged as “drug free” when fewer than 20 people per 100,000 are convicted of using drugs. Until now, Korea has managed to stay below its limit of 12,000 in total, but last year, with 14,214 drug offenders, this was exceeded for the first time.
The unanticipated 20 percent leap was quite a shock to the government. It had no choice but to extend the action period for the joint investigation team, which was planned to end this March, by another year. It was a sign that the government acknowledges the gravity of the situation, and the need for a new and more efficient way of controlling drugs.
▲ Barplot of South Korea’s annual progression of narcotics.
SNS and the Rise of Drugs
The surge in drug use stems from the proliferation of Social Networking Services (SNS). The power of social networking has allowed dealers to diversify both their suppliers and consumers. The importation of drugs, which were originally primarily Chinese in origin, has expanded to include the likes of Mexico and South-East Asian countries. Given the accessibility and difficulty in tracking SNS platforms, drug dealers have redirected their trafficking to these platforms. Also, with some using untraceable bitcoin, virtual money used online, it has become almost impossible for the police to apprehend these dealers.
The methods used by these dealers are rather impressive. They approach potential buyers via Kakao Talk, Twitter, or abandoned internet sites and leave simple messages. To avoid being tracked, they substitute the names of the drugs in the messages with slang, for example, calling a meth shot “a stick,” or meth powder ”crystal” or “ice.” When a buyer appears, the dealers continue neg otiations through messenger applications. After the purchase is finalized, they deliver the drugs boldly by post using quick delivery or simply drop it in a promised location, a method known as “throwing.”
It was 2016 that marked the start of South Korea’s drug crisis in SNS and on the Internet. In June, a drug trafficker who sold gamma-hydroxybutrate (GHB), known as mul-bbong in Korea because of its frequent use in date rapes, to 80 people was arrested. Hardly five months later, 90 people were caught buying illegal drugs including meth and marijuana through chatting applications and SNS. It startled the public that, among the 90, an actor and a stewardess was included. The actor excused his act as a foolish deed done out of curiosity, but the public’s response was cold.
The problem did not end there. Due to the greatly increased ease of access to the primary ingredients, there have even been some cases where people produced drugs themselves, using recipes uploaded online. Also, female and juvenile drug use jumped to 20 percent of the total use. The police immediately reacted by establishing a 24- hour monitoring system that searches posts on SNS for words related to drugs. They have shut down over 200 internet sites and deleted 1,500 posts, but these efforts have not done much to ease the online insanity.
▲ Buying drugs from a dealer by Kakao Talk. Provided by Ujnews.
Change—Perception and Reaction
As can be seen, most of the government’s counter-measurements have been focused on strong regulation. However, some are skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach now that the situation has changed. They criticize the Korean government’s reaction to drugs as ignorant, exaggerated, and old fashioned.
The Cannabis Legalization Alliance of South Korea is the only marijuana legalization support network in Korea. It consists of six members, who have pledged to make ceaseless efforts to change the perception of drugs and revise the error of the current system related to drugs. The alliance points out that, “The biggest error in the current system is treating people caught for the simple use of narcotics and classified as non-violent drug offenders as a criminal case.”
It emphasize that half of the drug offenders last year, 7,329 out of 14,214, were caught with drugs for personal use. In its view, it is an absurdity to treat these people as criminals when numerous studies prove the inefficiency of this approach. “This can be seen in the recidivism rate or the expense of subjecting users to criminal punishment in the United States (U.S.) or other foreign cases,” argues the alliance. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), the cost of rehab was less than 10 percent that of criminal punishment for drugs in the U.S. in 2011.
In addition, criminalization deprives harmless drug offenders of the chance to get off drugs. Labelling drug users as criminals and forcing them into a situation where they must secretly purchase drugs from dangerous gang members will only increase the number of drug users, leading to a vicious circle. The alliance suggests that the government focus on helping these people kick the habit rather than punishing them. Indeed, times have changed, and an ignorant reaction cannot lead to salvation.