After nearly a year of discussion, South Korea appears to have won the race to be the first nation in East Asia to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, while both Malaysia and Thailand consider making the move as well.
On Nov. 23, South Korea’s national assembly voted to approve a bill that would amend the country’s narcotics law to allow for medical marijuana. It’s worth noting that South Korea’s medical cannabis law is expected to look a lot more like CBD-only Texas and nothing like Venice Beach, California circa 2005.
While South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has yet to set out the official rules and the country’s cabinet and president must still sign off on the bill, this is still huge progress for South Korea. The country has an international reputation for demonizing the use of cannabis. Recently, K-pop rapper sensation T.O.P. was forced to wait months to resume his mandatory military service after admitting to smoking marijuana two times. He also got two years of probation and a ten month suspended prison sentence. Also, when legal sales began in Canada last month, we again saw just how serious South Korean authorities take their anti-pot laws even for those traveling abroad, when they warned citizens they could be punished at home for cannabis they consume in another country. The warning from the embassy was likely targeted at the young Koreans who make up 6 percent of all international students in Canada.
The backstory on South Korea’s impending medical marijuana legalization just reinforces how big a move Democrat Shin Chang-Hyun pulled off last week. When he filed the bill in January, Chang-Hyun shared one of the stories that inspired his actions with his fellow members of the Korean National Assembly.
“The current law strictly forbids the sale and purchase of cannabis, which led to a recent case of a mother being arrested and sentenced in court for buying cannabis oil from overseas to treat her son with brain cancer,” he said.
He followed up by noting she wasn’t alone. In the first half of 2016, he said the Incheon Main Customs reported a total of 38 prosecuted cases due to the import of cannabis oil.
One of the big boosts for the effort came this past summer when the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety backed Chang-Hyun’s plan. Back in July, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said that they would approve only four products for a handful of rare conditions: Marinol, Sativex, Cesamet (nabilone) and Epidiolex.
While it’s still unclear if these are the only cannabis medications that will be allowed in South Korea, it is likely that the country will only provide medicines that have been approved by health agencies in other countries.
Under the bill’s rules, South Koreans would be able to access the pharmaceuticals once they receive an approval letter from their physician that they would then bring to the Korea Orphan Drug Center, a government organization in charge of delivery rare medicines to citizens.
Since the South Korean government has stated its citizens can still get up to five years in prison for smoking weed in Canada, it’s going to be a good practice for South Koreans to stick to the letter of the law on this one.
The Korean Cannabis Association, a local organization, has been anticipating that the South Korean government would legalize cannabis for medical purposes. They announced in July that they had arranged for cannabis oil to be imported into the country by a joint effort from an Israeli company, Tikun Olam, and a Canadian firm, York Bridge Capital. Tikun Olam is already active in four countries.
Tikun Olam founder Tzahi Cohen is excited to bring access to a new corner of the globe.
“Tikun Olam is excited about supplying medical cannabis to Korea, as well as delivering Tikun Olam’s wealth of clinical research and expertise to the Korean market,” said Cohen, when the deal was reached this summer. “In addition, Tikun Olam is looking forward to working with Korean medical researchers in continually developing both existing and new products for the Korean and global markets. Our primary goal is to improve human health through the delivery of clinically validated approaches and products.”
It is unclear at this time if the South Korean government would approve any medical cannabis from Tikun Olam, or other companies whose products haven’t been approved by a health agency like the FDA.
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