Drug use among entertainers is once again making headlines in Korea, and with it conflicting calls for liberalization or harsher enforcement of drug laws. Ironically, while drug crimes were on the rise from 1999, when they surpassed 10,000 for the first time ever, there has been a downward trend since 2003.
This appears to be due to an ongoing crackdown, as part of which the National Police Agency has established a drug investigation section in 2002 and set up 31 drug squads in Seoul police stations alone.
But while drug crimes may be on the decrease, the problem itself is growing more complicated. The biggest worry is that away from the public eye the proportion of ordinary drug users like students and housewives is increasing. There are calls for an urgent solution since it is tougher to bust such groups for drug use than, say, nightclub employees.
Drug use spreads in various ways. In the case of university students, who are rapidly becoming the biggest problem group, drug use has mushroomed -- focused on clubs in Seoul's Sinchon and Gangnam districts -- due to the activity of some students who have studied abroad and the sons and daughters of Korea's upper class.
Much of this involves Romilar (Dextromethorphan) and Ecstasy, which make up 70 percent of Korea's illegal drug market.
Korean exchange students tend to go to countries with serious drug problems, like the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If they succumb to the lure of drugs there, they are often unable or unwilling to break their habit when they return home.
Signs are that drug use among students returning from abroad is reaching serious proportions. Last May, a student who had recently come back from New Zealand was arrested after holding a party with marijuana he had brought home with him. In June, a group of 35 were arrested for habitually taking Ecstasy and speed.
Other young students are getting hooked on drugs believing that the substances, which they often don't realize are illegal or harmful, will help them study better. A representative example was last June's police investigation of Methylphenidate (Ritalin) sales in Korea. The drug is so addictive that it is heavily restricted in 150 countries, but it was being distributed among middle and high school students in Seoul's Gangnam district as a substance that would help them study.
Most women drug offenders, many of them housewives, get into drugs believing that they would help them diet. Another major problem is that as source nations diversify, cheaper drugs are becoming more widely available.
In the past, the trade was mainly in the hands of organized crime syndicates bringing speed and marijuana in from countries like Japan, but recently U.S. soldiers, foreign English teachers, African traders and even the Russian mafia have made inroads into the business.
The drugs themselves are also becoming more diverse. Ecstasy, smuggled in mostly from the U.S., takes the lion's share of the Korean narcotics market, while in May a group selling methcathinone (or "cat') from Russia was busted for the first time in Korea.
Some adult shops are selling gamma hydroxy butyrate (GHB) under the counter, but as the substance has yet to be legally defined a hallucinogenic or addictive drug, authorities are helpless to punish its use.
Lee Han-deok, the vice chairman of the Korean Association Against Drug Abuse, said the biggest problem were students who get hooked abroad and promote drug use in Korea when they return to Korea. He said more competitive pricing and wider choice of drugs were seducing Korea's youth. The best solution was to educate the nation that illegal drugs destroy people, he said.