The Ongoing Battle Against Narcotics
The Ongoing Battle Against Narcotics
  • Jo Yoo Suyeon
  • 승인 2024.03.04 10:31
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On January 24, a suspect was arrested for offering narcotic-laced drinks to teenagers in front of an academy in Gangnam. He tricked the students into drinking a beverage laced with methamphetamine and ecstasy under the guise of a tasting event for a drink that was supposed to improve memory and concentration. He then threatened to report the drug consumption to the police and demanded money. The police described the incident as a serious case of the threat narcotics pose to citizens in everyday life and warned of the dangers of narcotics.


An inescapable pleasure

Narcotics are drugs that have physical and psychological effects when taken and can cause harm to the human body if misused or abused. They are categorized into three types: drugs such as opium and heroin, psychotropic substances, and cannabis. Among them, psychotropic substances, which include hallucinogens and stimulants, directly affect the central nervous system, which is responsible for human sensation. Narcotics produce intense feelings of pleasure, and when a person is unable to experience this pleasure on a regular basis, they experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from narcotics can occur within a week and up to a month, and initially starts with physical symptoms such as headaches, exhaustion, and sleep disturbances. Symptoms eventually lead to mental health problems such as lethargy and depression. Even if the user takes narcotics again to stop these symptoms, they have already developed a tolerance to them and have to take more to stop the withdrawal symptoms. The global control of narcotics is due to these possibilities of dependence and their addictive properties. In other words, people become dependent on them to again feel the intense pleasure they experienced when they took them before, leading to addiction. Recognizing the dangers, Korea's Narcotics Control Act has made it illegal for anyone other than a licensed professional to handle narcotics.
Although narcotics are restricted due to their physical and mental effects, they can be found in Korea. According to the Trends in Narcotics Smuggling Control statistics released by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety in April 2023, a total of 1,054 cases of narcotics were seized by the Korea Customs Service in 2021, a 51 percent increase compared to 2020. The weight of the seized narcotics was 1,272 kilograms, 757 percent more than the previous year. This increase in the volume of narcotics on the market indicates that demand is also increasing. In Korea, one method of trading narcotics is to take them to a specific place in advance and invite buyers. Attorney Cheon Ki-hong explains, "Before 2015-2016, the main form of distribution was face-to-face, where sellers and buyers traded narcotics directly. However, since 2015-2016, the use of bitcoin and the dark web has increased, and non-face-to-face transactions have begun to take place."1) This represents a shift in the transactional landscape of narcotics trafficking, as a more active internet has made it easier to purchase them. Distributors have capitalized on the fact that some messaging apps, such as Telegram, are highly secure and anonymous, making it difficult for law enforcement to access them. The distribution methods of narcotics are becoming more sophisticated as technology advances, which causes wider proliferation.

Categorization of narcotics


Falling into the addiction swamp

In addition to the existing types of narcotics with various withdrawal symptoms, the new synthetic narcotics have emerged in recent decades. Synthetic narcotics are created by modifying the chemical structure of existing drugs to avoid regulations. Unlike conventional or medical narcotics, they are not tested for toxicity, so their effects on humans cannot be determined in advance. As a result, they produce intense pleasure and exacerbate the existing withdrawal symptoms. One of them, fentanyl, is made from a natural substance found in the poppy plant, the source of opium. Fentanyl has been used to treat terminal cancer patients who are in excruciating pain, but when taken by non-pain sufferers, it triggers the release of endorphins, causing a rapid rush of pleasure. What makes fentanyl more problematic is that it is distributed in the form of patches that can be applied to the body to deliver a dose. This makes it possible to absorb large amounts in a short period of time. Furthermore, due to their online availability, their use by teenagers has become a problem. Kim Dae-gyu, chief of the Drug Crime Investigation Division at Gyeongnam Provincial Police, said, "The withdrawal symptoms of fentanyl are severe especially in teens, including pain that feels like a beating all over your body. There have been many cases of teenagers who have used fentanyl once and even after being arrested, were caught using it again."2) This means that the use of narcotics is especially harmful for adolescents who are prone to stimulation, causing rapid addiction. Thus, the physical and mental symptoms of narcotic use are having a negative impact on the health of individuals.
Additionally, the addictive nature of narcotics is also causing social confusion as it leads to the emergence of narcotics offenders. These are criminals who have been convicted of dealing narcotics privately by possessing, manufacturing, or selling. According to the Recidivism Status of Narcotics Offenders report released by the Prosecutors' Office in July 2023, the recidivism rate of narcotics offenders in 2022 was 35 percent, which is higher than the average recidivism rate of 29.7 percent for all crimes. Additionally, 48 percent of narcotics offenders were sentenced to jail time rather than probation or a fine for their first offense. This suggests that high recidivism rates of narcotics offenders are a barrier to receiving probationary sentences, which is a punishment aimed at preventing recidivism and allowing defendants to return to society. That is, once a person is addicted to narcotics, they will continue to seek them out and commit additional offenses, even if they are punished. These offenders also commit crimes against the public. In June 2023, four people were arrested for distributing and administering a variety of narcotics on the mobile messenger, Telegram. They didn't just sell them, but they also coerced their acquaintances, who had never been exposed to narcotics before, into using them, causing the addiction that makes users keep buying. As such, the number of people exposed to drugs is expanding as more narcotics traffickers use the addictive properties of drugs to commit crimes against ordinary citizens.
In addition to unauthorized individuals handling narcotics, there are also cases of healthcare providers who are authorized to handle narcotics misusing them and causing people to become addicted to them. Even though it is not illegal for individuals to use medical narcotics prescribed by a doctor, problems are occurring in that prescriptions are being written without consideration for the patient's condition or age group. On March 94,154 doctors were initially warned by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety against prescribing and administering medical narcotics recklessly. When prescribing medicines, doctors should use the Drug Utilization Review (DUR), which provides information on a patient's previous drug prescriptions; however, this is not mandatory but recommended, leading to overprescribing of these narcotic drugs by doctors. Yeom Gun-woong, professor of the Department of Police & Fire Administration at U1 University, said, "There is a system in place to check narcotics, but the problem is that it is left to the subjective judgment of doctors and hospitals."3) This suggests that there is a need to protect patients by providing specific narcotic prescribing rules for doctors to follow, such as mandating the use of the DUR. In some cases, these off-label prescriptions have been distributed to young people under the age of 16, who are not allowed to receive prescriptions containing narcotics. Dietamine, in particular, has an appetite suppressant effect, which has led adolescents to purchase it illegally to lose weight. Misuse in hospitals has led not only to the illegal trade of narcotics, but also to the risk of adolescent narcotic use. As problems related to narcotics are occurring in various fields, a national solution seems to be needed.

Confiscated cannabis


Getting back to normal life

There are calls to refer to the situation in the United States, which has a system in place to deal with the problem of narcotics. Unlike Korea, where only medical narcotics are allowed, in the U.S., some narcotics are allowed under the laws of each state. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is an investigative agency that cracks down on the abuse of narcotics and provides punishment, treatment, and prevention education. Each state has its own drug task force, but the DEA acts as a control tower for them all. Compared to the United States, where there is one main enforcement agency, investigations into narcotics in Korea are divided into different agencies for various tasks. For domestic investigations, the Prosecutors' Office handles smuggling and large-scale distribution crimes, while the Korean National Police Agency handles small-scale distribution crimes. In April 2023, the government launched the Special Investigation Unit for Narcotics Crimes, but there are still concerns that it is unable to cope with the speed at which narcotics are spreading as it has not unified the work. In response to this situation, Kim Hee-jun, a former narcotics investigation expert, said, "The Special Investigation headquarters is a dispatch organization that gathers people from various ministries, so it is difficult to exert efficiency. It is necessary to establish a control tower that deals with narcotics comprehensively, giving it the ability to cover everything about narcotics."4) In other words, the decentralized enforcement system needs to be integrated into one to prevent duplication of efforts and effectively combat crimes. It seems that the priority for addressing domestic narcotics crime is to improve the investigation system.
In addition to investigation, there is a need for punishment and treatment to offenders when it comes to solving narcotics crimes. Due to the addictive nature of narcotics, the behavioral pattern of offenders appears to be incarceration, release, and re-offending, which needs to be corrected through treatment. The Ministry of Justice operates a program called Deferred Prosecution with Education, which provides a chance for rehabilitation for those who have committed narcotics offenses. Prosecution is deferred until the recipient completes a narcotics treatment program conducted by the Korean Association Against Drug Abuse (KAADA). According to the Status of Deferred Prosecution Conditional on Completion of Education report released by the KAADA in July 2023, the number of deferred prosecutions in 2022 was 1,258, an increase of about 6 percent from the previous year. This means that the judicial system is providing opportunities for people who have already abused narcotics to receive information and help in order to overcome their addiction. However, the program has been criticized for focusing on education rather than medical help. Dr. Lee Hae-guk, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Catholic University of Korea, said, "Deferred prosecution with education for those addicted to narcotics is not linked to treatment. It just neglects people who are motivated to get clean only as drug offenders."5) That is, there is a need for prevention, which focuses on preventing recidivism through treatment, rather than fragmentarily treating narcotics offenders as objects to be punished. Therefore, it seems necessary to improve the system so that punishment and treatment can be carried out at the same time.
The private sector is organizing and operating treatment facilities for addiction rehabilitation. The Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC) was established to help addicts who are willing to make the commitment to stop using narcotics in their daily lives after inpatient treatment in a hospital or incarceration in a correctional facility. It is a residential rehabilitation facility, meaning that those seeking treatment live together and are visited by counselors and doctors who specialize in narcotics addiction. The program's approach is based on the idea that dependence is a collective problem that cannot be solved by a single individual. Residents stay for a minimum of six months, with the option to extend their stay or return to their normal lives afterward, working at a job that DARC secures for them. Despite these private efforts, the lack of state support has made it difficult to operate them. Han Bu-sik, the director of DARC in Gimhae City, said, "We've been operating under a license in the city of Gimhae for four years, but we keep getting told by the city that they can't continue to support us because they don't have enough money."6) In other words, private efforts alone cannot sustain these facilities in the long run, as it is costly and time-consuming to treat narcotic addiction. In addition, while 85 DARCs are currently operating in Japan, where the first one was established, only three exist in Korea, and they are limited in the number of people they can treat at a time. This implies that there is a need for a systematic treatment infrastructure in which the national government and local governments collaborate with private treatment facilities. It seems that it takes a whole society to eliminate the problem and rehabilitate those addicted to narcotics.

Director Han Bu-sik of DARC in Gimhae City


One step toward an integrated system

The addictive properties of narcotics go beyond health consequences for the individual, leading to societal crime and recidivism. To prevent these risks, there is a societal demand for a coordinated system of punishment, enforcement, and treatment to deal with offenders. However, the lack of a unified investigation system and few rehabilitation facilities makes it difficult to systematically respond to narcotic use. It is necessary for the Korean government to develop a solution to end the crime of narcotic use by comprehensively considering overseas systems.


1) Kim Dong-kyu, "Drug 'Throwing' Changes...Drug Offender Composition Changes [Kim Dong-kyu's 'Stop Drugs!']", The Financial News, April 14, 2023

2) Lee Seong-won, ""The Doctor Prescribed It, so Why Not"... Kids on Drugs", The Seoul Shinmun, November 10, 2021

3) Gong Byung-sun, "[Korea on Drugs] ① Skinny Man Prescribed Narcotic Appetite Suppressants in 3 Minutes", The Asia Business Daily, March 14, 2023

4) Yoo Sung-yeol, "[Interview] "Korea Isn't a Drug-Free Country... We Need to Build a Control Tower" Attorney Kim Hee-jun's Diagnosis and Solution", DONG-A ILBO, July 6, 2023

5) Kim Yeon-jin, Kwon Ah-hyun, "It's Become a Way to Fit in With Your Peers... 10,000 Teens on Drugs, at Least", Chosun Ilbo, April 16, 2023

6) Kang Hong-min, "'Clean Republic of Narcotics' Is a Thing of the Past: Why South Korea Has Become a 'Drug Republic'", The Korea Economic Daily, November 20, 2023

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