SKorea: Is zero tolerance winning the war on ‘legal highs’?By David Slatter Mar 04, 2013 6:40AM UTC
While Western nations struggle with the legal theory and moral ambiguity of ‘legal highs’, Korea has no such qualms. No highs are legal, as arrests with synthetic weed or other ‘legal’ highs have been treated just as harshly as their more ‘natural’ cousins.
Korea has worked hard to portray itself as ‘drug-free’. To a large extent it is, with just 9,255 drug arrests in 2012 (and that number’s pretty stable year on year). These figures are also not ‘fudged’, as some of Korea’s other ‘low crime rate’ figures are accused of. The West’s recent struggles with the new legal highs constantly emerging is also not really an issue, as Korea uniformly asks the Korean Food and Drug Administration to declare all new substances illegal almost immediately upon discovering them. The KFDA rarely declines. However, despite these efforts Korea is still fighting a battle against drugs, if not quite the war the rest of the world is fighting.
Part of the unique problems posed by ‘legal highs’ is that it is mostly a web-based trade. Sites from Western countries sell such products openly and are willing to ship anywhere. Without the same level of fear that physically smuggling brings most people, many may be more inclined to take the risk. The Korea Communications Standards Commission were quick to do what they do best, and block such sites, but new ones are of course springing up all the time. Part of the problem may also be ignorance. The name ‘legal highs’ itself may mislead some into thinking that punishment will not be as harsh, that perhaps it is a legal grey area (as seen in discussions on Yahoo and Dave’s ESL). It is not.
Back in 2009, Korea Beat here at Asian Correspondent, reported that ‘discoveries of party drugs and designer drugs quadrupled in the past year to 20 incidents involving 2,598 pills.’ This was followed in 2011 by the case of US soldiers and others smuggling and selling the synthetic ‘Spice’ in Itaewon, and another case last year again involving Spice and soldiers.
These cases mark a slow but steady rise of the availability and awareness of legal highs. Korea began tackling Spice, and declaring different strains illegal since 2009, but as one of the cheapest and most potent drugs on the market it looks likely to continue being a problem for the authorities.
Perspective is required, however, and almost all (media covered at least) stories of its use are centered on the nightlife scene in a few neighborhoods of Seoul (I’ll leave you to guess which ones, it shouldn’t be too hard). It still seems like Spice is far away from being a real concern for the Korean public or the authorities.
Perhaps most surprising though is the fact that Spice imported into Korea is actually on a homeward journey of sorts:
‘The compounds [used in Spice] were also being used commercially in South Korea as a plant growth product, and Huffman [the chemist who developed cannabinoids] speculates that they migrated from there to China, where they are now being manufactured for use in Spice.’”
It’s often the people you least expect, in this case Korean farmers.