South Koreans Fighting Drug Addiction Find Few Rehab Options
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Hyonhee Park and Minwoo Park
SEOUL (Reuters ) - Each Saturday, a group young South Koreans gathers at Incheon west of Seoul in order to discuss their struggles with drug addiction. They seek sympathy and support through emotional exchanges.
Choi Jinmook is the person who organizes these free therapy sessions. He has been battling addiction for over 20 years and became a counsellor. Choi Jinmook advocates for a change in South Korea's drug policy from punishing to treating.
Choi, 48 years old, started taking cough medicine without a prescription at the age of 17 and was arrested for marijuana when he was in his 20s. In and out of prison for 15 years, he turned to meth and stronger drugs before another addict-turned-counsellor led him to an "awakening".
Choi: "I thought that I would become a normal person after I was released from prison. But there, I learned more about drug abuse instead of receiving treatment."
"I couldn't get free from the chains."
Choi claims that South Korea only has six drug rehab centres. Of these, two are run by the Ministry of food and drug safety. Japan, with its 126 million residents compared to South Korea's 50 million, has 90 rehab centers.
Choi is the director of one of three centres that were established 10 years ago, with funding provided by Japan. The centres are run according to a Japanese model, and only ex-addicts provide counselling and care.
Choi, along with other counselors, have tried to build more rehabilitation centres and make them accessible. However Choi has not been able to receive government funding due to a lack of general awareness about the need for additional facilities.
Prison Not Rehab
Choi stated that the South Korean correctional system is primarily focused on punitive imprisonment and does not provide rehabilitation support.
The arrest of celebrities and chaebol heirs, including award-winning actor Yoo Ah-in, on charges of illegal drugs has prompted the authorities to tighten up on narcotics.
Drug crimes can be punished by up to 14-year prison sentences for repeat offenders or dealers. Some drug crimes can also be punished by death, although South Korea hasn't executed anyone since 1997.
Choi says that while most offenders who are first or second time offenders receive suspended sentences, and must attend 30 to 40 hours mandatory drug education classes, this is not enough to help them quit drugs.
He said that the best time to start addiction treatment was when you are caught for the very first time. But expecting addicts to quit after a few hours of classes is like hoping for a miraculous.
The system must provide proper treatment and rehab to help addicts begin a new life once they return to society.
Last week, the government formed special inter-agency teams to crack down on drugmakers, distributors and dealers. Justice Minister Han Dong Hoon announced plans to expand state rehabilitation facilities last year, promising to fight drugs as if it were a war.
The Justice Ministry did not respond to inquiries about plans for additional state rehab centers. The food and drug safety minister said that due to budget restrictions, it will only add one state rehab centre this year.
Choi stated that social media has made drugs more affordable and accessible. He also said that overseas travel and the increase in social media have led to a cheaper price for these drugs.
Social media allows you to get what you want in Seoul within 30 minutes.
According to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office, drug-related convictions increased from 12,000 to over 16,000 people in 2021. In 2021, almost 60% of those convicted for drug crimes were under 39 years old. The number of teens who committed drug crimes increased by 44% from 2020.
Data from the prosecutor's office showed that in 2021, the volume of illicit drugs confiscated more than tripled, reaching a record-breaking 1.3 tonnes (2.870 lb), partly due to international investigations into smuggling ring,
Around 85% of all seizures were made up by meth, cocaine, and marijuana. As well, authorities are seeing an increase in synthetic cannabinoids like fentanyl which is 100 times stronger than morphine.
Customs officer Lee Kyoung Ran, of South Korea's biggest airport Incheon, said that a higher volume and greater variety of drugs were being smuggled.
Last week, President Yoon Suk Yeol who lamented the fact that the country was no longer "drug free" ordered more aggressive measures to eliminate traffickers and confiscate drugs profits.
Addicts who are trying to stop using drugs and alcohol will need help.
Lee Dong Jae, 23, was desperate to stop using meth and found Choi in the last year. Choi provided Lee with free counseling and housing in his rehab center, and also offered him a job working at his wife’s restaurant.
Lee: "I haven't had a job, or a daily life as exciting and fulfilling since I started taking drugs. But now, I feel like my positive and lively side is slowly returning."