In South Korea, drugs are no longer story of gangsters: anti-drug body chief

SEOUL– Drugs are no longer a story of gangsters in South Korea as illegal substances have permeated deeply into society, with the number of drug offenders jumping 75 percent over the past decade and feared to grow faster, the head of an anti-drug abuse organization said.

Kim Phil-yeo, chair of the Korea Association Against Drug Abuse (KAADA), made the remarks in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday as the government is putting together a series of measures to curb drug use.

According to the World Drug Report 2022 published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, drug users aged 15-64 reached 284 million worldwide in 2020, marking a 26 percent increase over the previous decade.

In South Korea, the number skyrocketed 75 percent from 9,255 in 2012 to 16,153 in 2021.

“South Korea appears to be in a very serious situation. … Drug issues are no longer limited to gang members as we used to think, but many people across the society from office workers and students to housewives are struggling with drug abuse in reality,” Kim said.

The country now is believed to be home to some 450,000 drug abusers, the KAADA chief said based on an expert calculation that puts the actual size of a drug abuse population at about 30 times more than the number of identified drug offenders.

Extreme mental stress stemming from a high level of competition in South Korean society and increased exposure to drug-related online content and dealings, combined with coronavirus-induced depression, have been a driving force behind the recent surge in drug crimes, most pronounced in younger generations and first-time drug offenders, according to her.
As of 2021, drug offenders in their 20s and 30s represented nearly 60 percent of all drug offenders as the leading drug abuse age groups, surpassing those in their 40s, the No. 1 age group for drug abuse until 2018.

“What’s most worrisome is the high rate of first-time drug offenders who now represent about 80 percent of all offenders,” Kim noted.

“Illegal drugs are addictive and habitual, and carry withdrawal symptoms. Using such drugs even once can lead to addiction, and it’s very difficult to overcome the addiction through sheer willpower,” she said.

The emergence and growing complexities of new drugs, in the meantime, are making it difficult for drug safety authorities to identify and prohibit them while falling prices of traditional street drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, have allowed accessibility to more people, according to Kim.

“People even say one dose of methamphetamine only costs 24,000 won (US$16.9), while in the past, it cost at least several hundred thousand won. Now the price is much lower,” she said.

“For some new drugs, there are not even relevant rules to punish those who use them because they have yet to be classified,” she said.

The KAADA chair also sounded alarms over the increasing abuse of highly addictive prescription drugs, such as diet and sleeping pills, as well as depression and ADHD medications, that also have been behind the recent drug abuse upsurge.

She said the country needs a change of perception toward drug abusers to recognize them as patients, not criminals, so that they can receive proper treatment and rehabilitation to safely return to society.

“Addiction is a brain illness that permanently transforms the brain structure. It never recovers even after the addiction is treated. Drug abusers, I think, need help and pity rather than stigmatization,” Kim said.

Established in 1992, KAADA conducts anti-drug abuse campaigns and counseling and rehabilitation work for drug offenders and those struggling with drug issues at the behest of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety with a budget partially financed by the central and regional governments and the Korean Pharmaceutical Association.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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