South Korea Legalizes Medical Marijuana, But Will It Lead to Wider Use?

South Korea has had a notoriously strict attitude towards marijuana and its users. That is all about to change. The Asian country officially legalized medical marijuana on Nov. 23.

The so-called Amendment to the Narcotics Control Act was put in force, establishing the groundwork for a true revolution. South Korea is the first Asian country to legalize marijuana in any form, and this could greatly influence the global cannabis business. But is this law as beneficial as it seems?

A frontrunner in Asia

When South Korea made headlines as the first Asian country to soften its stance on marijuana, its citizens let out a collective sigh of relief.

It’s important to note that South Korea was notoriously tough on its citizens even for smoking marijuana recreationally in countries where it’s legal. This included random blood, hair and urine tests for people on the airports. Many offenses resulted in large fins.

After a period of intense debate, the South Korean National Assembly decided to ease its stance on marijuana. The law, although not yet clearly defined, will grant access to non-psychoactive doses of medical marijuana to patients who need such medicine.

The discussion mostly revolved around patients with epilepsy and other rare conditions. In the next months, it will be determined which diseases can be treated with medical MJ either as a pain relief or with another purpose.

The legislative details have not been clearly defined yet. However, several experts predict cannabis products entering the South Korean market as early as the second quarter of 2019. This surprised many leaders in the global cannabis businesses, due to South Korea’s youth culture and potent economy.

A process not yet complete

One major obstacle in the legislative process was the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, as they have been vehemently rejecting any marijuana-related propositions.

Recently, the members of their head commission have reviewed scientific evidence, which led to the conclusion that marijuana may indeed have medical applications. With that being said, they explicitly stated that the law will relate only to non-hallucinogenic quantities.

The first that comes to mind is CBD, as it has an extensive list of possible medical applications and it’s not psychoactive. In addition to this potential limit of THC content, the MFDS announced that they would also approve the import, manufacture, and sale of drugs such as Epidiolex, Cesamet, Marinol and Sativex.

Some of the conditions these medications are used for are severe epilepsy and AIDS/HIV, as well as cancer and symptoms related to the disease.

Activists such as Sungseok Kang of the Organization for Legalizing Medical Cannabis, state the importance of this step. “Our country has unrightfully prosecuted thousands of people that had a dire need for medical cannabis and who purchased it abroad. This is a step in the right direction and will give a more diverse range of possible treatments for any disease.”

The entirety of the law and its sections will be completed by April this year, according to estimates.

Is something not right?

While the legislative change is surely a welcome one, many experts have noted that this might not be what it seems. Sungseok Kang expands on the issue.

“It’s not that we aren’t grateful for this progression, but we have to look at the bigger picture. Legalizing cannabis in its early stages means applying heavy regulations and restrictions. Since cannabis will now be a state-regulated form of medication, the MFDS is free to suggest any tax percentage they want.

Initially, we will just import products, but you have to look at the future a bit. Will this move prove to be an elaborate trick to gather more taxes? How difficult will it be to get a permit? Will any doctor be able to decide who gets a card? It’s a step in the right direction, but with several question marks around it.”

The skepticism that casts a shadow on the global cannabis business is entirely warranted. Since the South Korean government hasn’t officially suggested any details of the law, anything is possible. International retailers are certainly keeping a close eye on the entire process, as they will definitely want to market and sell their products on South Korean soil.

If this gets handled right by the MFDS, the global cannabis business might potentially be looking at its soon-to-be 3rd largest market (behind USA and Canada).

Fears about increased use

Several experts in the field of medical marijuana have noted that this might not be such a positive trend after all. According to them, legalizing marijuana for medical purposes opens a Pandora’s Box of risk related to increased use by the entire population.

As marijuana becomes available via a medical card or a prescription by a doctor, it will theoretically be able to circulate and become widely used. Scientists and politicians supporting this argument regularly mention under-aged children being at risk.

Legalizing medical marijuana isn’t just a chance for South Korea to introduce taxes and earn money. They have a myriad of tasks on their hands, starting with safety regulations, permits, and other details. Marijuana grown illegally can contain toxic substances, which means there must be a concrete set of rules.

It’s equally important to mention that legalized growth doesn’t mean the eradication of a black market. Illegal growers will see taxes as an opportunity to earn money by selling at a lower price. This is evident in states that have legalized, such as Washington, California, and Colorado.

One way or another

The majority of the medical community disagrees with the notion that legalization yields a higher risk of widespread use. They remind that people will use marijuana one way or another. Criminalization or decriminalization might change the system initially, but people will adapt over time. While we’re not yet sure of South Korea’s entire stance on this issue, it’s still great news and significant progress on an extremely sensitive subject.

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