On Nov. 23, 2018, South Korea became the first East Asian country to legalize cannabis-based medical products, albeit with heavy regulation.
The South Korean National Assembly approved amendments to the Narcotic Drug Management Act to allow patients with diseases documented to be alleviated through the use of medical cannabis to have legal access to a few cannabis products. The decision reversed decades of strict prohibitions and heavy sentences against cannabis use.
South Korea criminalized cannabis along with poppies, opium, and cocaine in 1957, although at the time the ban applied only to Indian-grown marijuana, allowing the Korean market of cannabis to grow. In the 1960s, cannabis use rose. The government began cracking down on smokers in the 1970s. In 1976, the Cannabis Control Act singled out marijuana and outlawed smoking and possession of all cannabis.
Since then, attempts to reform the drug laws have fallen short. However, in January 2018, Shin Chang-hyun, of the Democratic Party, introduced the new legislation.
In part, the translated revision said that while it is necessary to regulate the hallucinogenic and addictive effects of hemp, certain medicinal use should be considered to be allowed.
A few cannabis products are now legal.
The only qualifying conditions as of March 2019 are two forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes. The only currently allowed product was Epidiolex, an FDA-approved cannabidiol.
However, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said in July 2018 it would permit Epidiolex, Marinol, and Cesamet for weight loss or nausea from HIV/AIDS and cancer-related treatments, and Sativex for symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Patients must apply to the government with a doctor’s prescription, medical records, and a qualifying condition to be approved by the government on a case-by-case basis. Then they may order online through the Korea Orphan Drug Center, a government organization that arranges access to rare medicines. The medicine must be picked up at the center’s offices in Seoul. Those outside the region must travel.
South Korea has a history of strict laws and enforcement of marijuana offenses and has no provisions to allow adult-use cannabis. Smokers can face five years in prison and fines of more than $40,000, or more than $50 million won. The government has said it will arrest citizens for using marijuana in Canada and other places where recreational cannabis is legal.