In November of 2018, South Korea made headlines by revising its national drug policy to allow CBD imports for medical purposes. The move came as a surprise, especially since only a month earlier the South Korean government told its citizens that they could face criminal prosecution if they consumed recreational cannabis while visiting Canada’s newly-legalized market.
Despite the baby steps taken in South Korea, there is still a long ahead for cannabis reform much like many countries in Asia. Pushing the discussion and reform efforts forward are brave and dedicated people doing everything they can to enact meaningful change.
Two of those people are John [last name withheld] who is the Founder of Yipalli 281 Media, and Pastor Sung Seok Kang, Founder of the Korea Medical Cannabis Organization. They agreed to speak with Green Flower about the pitfalls and progress for cannabis reform in Korea.
Green Flower: Please explain how you have both been involved with cannabis reform in Korea.
John: Yipalli 281 Media, based in the U.S., was established in 2017 to help break stigmas surrounding cannabis through news, education, product reviews translated in Korean, Japanese, and English. While most people were focusing on CBD in Asia, 281 Media translated information and reviews for medical cannabis products containing THC for the Asian community.
Pastor Kang and 281 Media started exchanging communication in 2018 and finally met at MJBizCon that year. The communication started when 281 Media noticed fake CBD products targeting the Asian community in the U.S. and being imported in Korea. It was difficult to hear stories of patients in Korea getting swindled with “hemp seed oil.”
Pastor Kang: I am a third-generation Methodist pastor and [I have] been consulting with patients and their families who have been indicted for importing cannabis oil. [I] established the Korea Medical Cannabis Organization (KMCO) on June 29, 2017, for patients, their families, and medical professionals.
The KMCO reported to the National Assembly and major media about the situation in Korea for patients and their families. On January 5, 2018, 11 members of the National Assembly suggested revising part of the Narcotic Drug Management Act.
And on November 23, 2018, the Narcotic Drug Management Act Revision had passed.
GF: What is the current status of cannabis in Korea?
PK: The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety [has] granted permission only for cannabis-derived medicines such as Epidiolex and Sativex.
J: Cannabis for adult use is illegal. At the end of this year, [we expect] the UN will reschedule cannabis. [We] look forward to the changing perception of cannabis internationally.
GF: Is the Korean government open to cannabis reform of any kind?
PK: The Korean government has been cautious before the rescheduling at the UN. The revision of the law in 2018 was a big step forward, but government officials also had a bad perception of cannabis.
Only cannabis-derived medicine is currently allowed and that is why the advocacy of patients and patient/family parties such as KMCO is important.
J: The Korean Government is sponsoring a hemp pilot program in Andong. The pilot program will include hemp cultivation and CBD manufacturing. If the program succeeds, South Korea has the potential for full legalization.
GF: Is Korea further ahead than other countries in Asia or are they behind in regard to cannabis reform?
PK: Only a few countries around the world have accepted medical cannabis and cannabis-based drugs. In that respect, Korea can be said to be ahead. However, the social perception and public sentiment of cannabis in Asia is in a very bad situation, due to the influence of the global cannabis ban in the 20th century.
Every country has a unique approach to cannabis. Korea currently only allows medical synthetic cannabinoids to be imported, while Japan allows CBD-based products.
GF: What do you believe will be the future of cannabis in Korea?
PK: When the Convention is revised by the UN, each country must amend its domestic laws according to the changed convention within three years. KMCO is preparing for a reasonable revision of the law and proper administration.
J: 281 Media is providing consultation and support for policy and regulation changes in Korea. Working closely with organizations like KMCO, we are already seeing drastic changes and acceptance of cannabis as a whole plant.
If the testbed in Korea becomes successful in the next four years, we can look forward to cannabis legalization both medically and recreationally.