South Korea First Country in East Asia to Legalize Medical Cannabis

Written by BlackbirdGo January 4, 2019
The History

On Nov. 23, 2018, South Korea’s National Assembly voted to legalize medical cannabis by approving the Amendment to the Narcotics Control Act. South Korea is the second country in Asia to legalize medical cannabis (Israel was the first) and the first in East Asia. Though the bill has yet to be signed into law and many details of how the country will regulate cannabis have not been determined, the country is set to begin importing cannabis for medical use in early 2019, according to The Korea Herald.

The Korea Orphan Drug Center, a government organization created to provide Koreans access to rare medicine, will control all importing of medical cannabis. According to Marijuana Business Daily, patients can access medical cannabis to treat epilepsy, side effects of cancer treatments, and symptoms of HIV/ AIDS with a physician’s note stating that there is no other adequate treatment in Korea and approval from the Korea Orphan Drug Center.

South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, the agency in charge of regulating medical cannabis, will initially only permit Epidiolex, Marinol, Sativex, and Cesamet—all forms of cannabis approved for medical use in European countries and the United States. The Ministry’s announcement that it would support the Amendment to the Narcotics Control Act in July was a breakthrough for the movement to legalize medical cannabis, according to Kwon Yong-hyun of the Korean Cannabis Association.

Epidiolex is a trade name for cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating cannabinoid used in the United States to treat rare forms of epilepsy. In June 2018, Epidiolex became the first cannabis-derived drug to be approved by the FDA. Sativex contains both CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and is used in the United Kingdom to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. Marinol contains THC and is FDA approved for treating symptoms of HIV/ AIDS and nausea induced by chemotherapy. Cesamet is a synthetic cannabinoid also used for treating nausea induced by chemotherapy, as well as chronic pain.

The use of any cannabis products not approved by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, or the use of approved products without a prescription, remains illegal for South Koreans. According to The New York Times, South Koreans can be imprisoned for up to five years or fined as much as 50 million won (approximately $44,000) for possession or consumption of cannabis. These laws apply to citizens of South Korea even when they are outside the country.

Other East Asian countries may soon follow South Korea in legalizing medical cannabis. According to Time, Thailand’s government is currently reviewing a bill that proposes medical legalization. Advocates of the bill say the medical cannabis industry could bolster the Thai economy.

After a death sentence for a man convicted of distributing medicinal cannabis oil generated public outrage in Malaysia, the Malaysian government began discussing the possibility of legalizing medical cannabis, according to Bloomberg. The government has since decided not to give the man the death penalty.

High Times reported in December 2016 that cannabis cultivation is legal in North Korea, though the substance’s official legal status remains unclear. According to High Times, cannabis grows freely in North Korea and has traditionally been used to make cooking oil, although now some farmers are selling their cannabis crop to Chinese tourists.

Though medical cannabis is illegal in Japan, CBD products are not. In June 2018, an Australian CBD company put up Japan’s first public advertisement for a CBD product in a Tokyo subway station, according to Hemp Today.

These developments in Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan suggest that South Korea’s legalization of medical cannabis may usher in a wave of reform in cannabis laws across East Asia.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.