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South Korea Approves Medical Marijuana

Sintia Radu

US News

Wednesday 12 Dec 2018

The move by the East Asian country doesn't necessarily portend wider use, observers say.

Until recently, South Korea made headlines as one of the most restrictive nations in its regulation of cannabis, and the country today still punishes its citizens not only for recreationally smoking marijuana within the borders of their homeland, but also abroad.

"Even in the legalized area of cannabis, please note that if the citizens of Korea smoke (including purchase, possess and transport) marijuana, they will be penalized for the offense," the South Korean Embassy in Canada wrote on Twitter after the North American country had declared medical marijuana legal.

In late November, however, South Korea’s National Assembly moved to ease laws and allow non-hallucinogenic doses of medical cannabis, making it the first East Asian nation to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, according to the Financial Times. Patients with epilepsy and several rare diseases will legally be able to get medical cannabis beginning as soon as early 2019, the country's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced, according to The Korea Herald.

The move comes shortly after Thailand announced it will legalize marijuana for similar purposes, taking the lead among Southeast Asian countries in doing so. In South Korea, while medical cannabis could soon be imported, "the import and use of cannabis that has not been approved for medical use in foreign countries will be strictly banned," according to the Korea Herald report.

Worldwide, cannabis is still a topic of debate, with its use in some form slowly gaining acceptance. Uruguay in 2013 became the first country to fully legalize marijuana, and Canada earlier this year followed suit.

Medical Marijuana Doesn't Always Lead to Wider Use

Experts, however, say people shouldn't expect further easing of regulations governing marijuana in South Korea. Countries across Asia are traditionally conservative societies, and many carry some of the world's harshest penalties for possessing drugs. Drug trafficking in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia can lead to capital punishment, and in Thailand, possessing drugs can bring lengthy prison sentences.

Karen Boxx, a law professor at the University of Washington who studies marijuana legislation in the U.S., says that when the legal ban on medical marijuana was lifted in that state, there was no clear evidence that cannabis would later become legal for recreational purposes as well. Today, Washington is one of 10 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, that allow the recreational use of marijuana.

"I don't know what the expectations were in Washington (at the time)," Boxx says. "I think in (the U.S.) most people who are supporting legalization hope to get their foot in the door with medical and then lead to completely open. (But) there are others that honestly just want to keep it to medical."

At the same time, Boxx says legalizing marijuana just for medical purposes risks leading to wider use of the substance.

"In Washington, an issue that came up was whom are we going to give it to," Boxx says. [For instance, "it was notorious in California that it was very easy to get medical marijuana cards, the screening process wasn't stringent, and it was easy to get a prescription for."

In addition, medical marijuana brings with it a need to regulate the supply chain and understand where the substance will be coming from, be it from home-grown sources or a previously authorized supplier.

"You have to be able to ensure the safety of the product and that's tricky because it's an agricultural product, so you have to make sure that the product is safely grown," Boxx says.

From this perspective, legalization does bring benefits, other experts say, because limiting consumption of any kind is generally challenging.

"People are going to use it whether it's legal or not," says Marcel Bonn-Miller, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. "One of the benefits of legalization is that it allows for regulation, which leads to safer, higher quality, and more accurately characterized cannabis products."




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