|Farmers in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, harvest cannabis whose stalks are used to make fabric. The law in Korea bans cannabis products in general but allows seeds, matured stalks and stems. /Courtesy of Andong city government|
Legislative change necessary but moves slow
By Kim Se-jeong
Kim is a medical doctor and a mother of a seven-year-old boy who suffers Lennos-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), or childhood-onset epilepsy.
She learned about the effectiveness of cannabis oil in treating epilepsy symptoms and ordered it from overseas last year.
The oil arrived in Korea but never got to her address.
Instead, the prosecution which was tipped off by the customs authority visited her and questioned her over attempting to smuggle drugs into Korea.
In a similar case, a mother in Gumi, North Gyeongsang Province, ordered cannabis oil last year from overseas for her son who suffers from a brain tumor and was investigated for the same violation.
The judge suspended the sentence citing her actions didn't quite mount to a violation of the law. Prosecutors, however, appealed the judge's decision and the mother is now waiting for an appeals court hearing.
What criminalized the two mothers is the Narcotics Control Act, which criminalizes any trade, process and commercialization of cannabis except for its stems, seeds and matured stalks. Some farmers in Korea grow cannabis for matured stalks to make fabrics but their cultivation is done under regulation.
If convicted, they can be sentenced to jail or fined but that doesn't stop people like Kim who are desperate to help heal their loved ones.
According to statistics, the number of such people has increased exponentially.
Last year, Korea Customs Service intercepted 80 instances of people trying to bring in medicinal cannabis products at the nation's airports and seaports, up from 10 cases in 2016 and six cases in 2015 _ the popularity of online shopping contributed to the increase.
Outside Korea, medicinal cannabis products are freely traded. In Canada, 29 states of the United States and countries in Europe and Latin America, cannabis has been legalized for medical purposes.
"There are many types of products including tablets and ointments outside Korea," said Kang Sung-suk from the Organization of Legalizing Medical Cannabis in Korea (OLMCK), an advocacy group based in Seoul. "And it's so easy to buy. You can even buy them from a supermarket or a pharmacy. The current law doesn't reflect what's going on outside Korea or help sick people who need medical help."
Cannabis vs marijuana
In Korea, cannabis is often considered identical to marijuana. But that's not entirely accurate.
Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants and marijuana is under the cannabis family. Another subspecies is hemp.
Marijuana contains a substance called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) responsible for its psychoactive effect, what its users call "getting high," and for that, it is regulated around the world. THC also has medical effects and is used under the supervision of doctors.
Hemp has what's called cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabis oil refers to CBD oil. Unlike marijuana, hemp contains very little of the substance that triggers the psychoactive effect and a wide range of commercial uses are allowed without regulations.
One example is hemp seeds that are considered a superfood with lots of fatty acids, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acids and can be purchased in stores.
Cannabis has been used to treat people for thousands of years.
In Korea, a harsh crackdown on marijuana in the 1970s planted in people's minds a stigma about cannabis, Kang said. The 1976 marijuana control law said those caught smoking marijuana could face punishment up to the death penalty.
For long, cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes. Researchers have found CBD can help epilepsy and reduce chronic nerve pain, anxiety and depression. Also, it is known to alleviate joint pains, diabetes and addictions.
CBD oil was a coveted chronic pain reliever among athletes; last year, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed cannabis substance from its banned substance.
Kang argues cannabis found in medicinal products has no psychoactive effects as was seen in marijuana or other drugs like opium, morphine and cocaine.
"Even for opium, morphine and cocaine, they're allowed to be used for medical purposes, so why not cannabis?"
Legislative change necessary
A legislative change is essential to help patients and seems to be on its way. It doesn't feel like it's coming fast enough for Kim and other patients who need the cannabis products badly.
Kang's group successfully lobbied 11 lawmakers who proposed a revision to the Narcotic Control Act. The bill was submitted in January and is expected to be reviewed by the welfare committee in April when the lawmakers will meet.
Lawmakers once turned down the revision in 2015, citing a lack of social consensus.
Kang said the mood has changed now. "When I talk to people, few disagree with legalizing cannabis for healing people," Kang said.
On March 8, speaking at a conference, a Ministry of Food and Drug Safety official said it will push for the legislative change later this year.
"We need to work with the bias that many Koreans still think cannabis and marijuana are the same thing and that legalizing cannabis means legalizing smoking marijuana."