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[Herald Interview] Korea should treat drug abuse epidemic as it did COVID-19: minister

Oh seeks to change response to addiction from punitive to therapeutic

The Korea Herald is running a series of feature stories and interviews on the evolution and rise of drug crimes, insufficient support systems and young addicts’ stories in South Korea. This is the third installment. -- Ed.

Minister of Food and Drug Safety Oh Yu-Kyoung speaks to The Korea Herald at her office in Osong, North Chungcheong Province, during an interview. (Ministry of Food and Drug Safety)
Minister of Food and Drug Safety Oh Yu-Kyoung speaks to The Korea Herald at her office in Osong, North Chungcheong Province, during an interview. (Ministry of Food and Drug Safety)

OSONG, North Chungcheong Province – South Korea’s drug abuse epidemic deserves just as much attention as COVID-19, according to Minister of Food and Drug Safety Oh Yu-Kyoung.

Speaking with The Korea Herald in a recent interview, Oh said tackling drug abuse has become a “top priority” at the ministry under her leadership.

“For so long, drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation has been a barren field in South Korea,” she said.

Oh said so far the country’s approach to drug abuse so far as “punitive rather than recuperative.”

“We punished the drug users and that was it. Then they’re left to deal with the lingering addiction issues on their own,” she said. “But punishment isn’t going to get them out of addiction. We’re trying to change that at the ministry.”

The Drug Safety Ministry in October set up a new team dedicated to post-addiction rehabilitation. This is in addition to the narcotics safety planning team that the ministry is seeking to expand into a bureau.

“It wasn’t until recently that the drug problem started getting serious here, so rehabilitation and addiction recovery weren’t the main items on the government’s policy agenda. We’re starting from scratch,” she said.

The minister said she making a pitch for building more drug addiction rehabilitation centers to National Assembly members.

“Currently there are only two in the country, one in Seoul and another in Busan. We want to add more so that there’s one in at least six other big cities. In Japan there are already over 80 such centers.”

The centers would also need to have language support for foreigners who can’t speak Korean, she added.

One of the things that the ministry is planning, she said, is creation of a 24/7 helpline for addicts that can provide information and emotional support, much like the suicide crisis helpline.

“The helpline is about giving them more options for seeking help,” she said. “Breaking out of addiction happens through community.”

One critical arm of drug abuse prevention is awareness, she said.

“Drug awareness doesn’t have to be something grand or complex. We should allow kids to learn about drugs and what addiction can do to people’s lives, rather than leaving them in the dark and unprepared for what might be out there.”

The minister drew an analogy with COVID-19.

“With COVID-19, people became so knowledgeable. People know what to do to prevent infection, where to find the tools and what can happen to them if they get infected. The government mobilized its resources to stamp out the spread,” she said.

“I think we haven’t been doing the same with drugs, although it’s a very fast-growing problem. We have to act before it gets out of hand and it’s too late.”

Up until around 2015, South Korea had been “a relatively drug-free country,” she said. “‘Drug-free’ meant there used to be less than 20 drug offenses for every 100,000 people. That is no longer the case. Last year the drug offense rate was 32 per 100,000 people.”

Drug users in South Korea are also getting younger, the minister said. “The main users of drugs used to be people in their 40s. Now it’s younger people in their 20s.”

The most worrying rise has been observed among teens. “We’re seeing what I would call an explosive rise, almost an 11-fold rise in the past decade, of drug use among teenage adolescents,” she said.

“Becoming exposed at such an early age means these kids are being set up for a lifetime of battling addiction.”

Oh said drugs were becoming “alarmingly easy to find” on social media platforms, where dealers target young people. Some dealers are turning to the dark web and messaging apps like Telegram, accepting cryptocurrency payments to avoid getting tracked.

“For drug dealers, all this technology is like a gift to them, and they’re getting to the kids first.”

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which has vowed a crackdown on drugs, launched a council for responding to drugs and associated problems in November. The council brings together police, the prosecution service, the coast guard, the customs service and the ministries of justice, health and foreign affairs.

In these coordinated efforts, the Drug Safety Ministry shoulders a key role.

“The first step in solving a problem is identifying what it is, and that’s where the Drug Safety Ministry comes in,” Oh said. “Drugs are evolving into new forms and shapes in an attempt to stay undetectable. There are new synthetic designer drugs coming up every now and then.”

The ministry classifies up-and-coming drugs and updates testing methods used in the country so that they’re detected.

“They’re constantly getting sneakier and smarter, and it’s like an unending chase of trying to outsmart one another,” the minister said. “This is why it’s so important that all of the government agencies and law enforcement work together.”

In September, the Drug Safety Ministry signed a letter of intent with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes to work jointly to keep tabs on the evolving trends.

“Working with the UNODC, we’re sharing a database of all the new synthetic drugs and latest trends being reported in about 130 countries. This helps us stay ahead.”

The new drugs, when first detected, are usually tagged as “potentially illicit” by the Drug Safety Ministry before they’re understood and designated as just “illicit.”

“This designation brings them within the scope of our surveillance, and we’re getting quicker at it. From detection to designation, it’s taken the ministry an average of 52 days this year. In 2019 it was over 100 days,” the minister said.

The ministry conducted a second round of wastewater-based surveillance in the past year, which revealed that the traces of cocaine nearly doubled on year. There is no criminal data that reflects the same rise.

“The wastewater tells us more than what the official statistics can suggest, and gives us an indication of the actual prevalence of drug use,” she said.

South Korea’s drug use has seen an on-year rise, according to the wastewater data, although still low compared to other parts of the world.

In the wastewater surveillance conducted for a year until April, methamphetamine use was measured at 23 milligrams per 1,000 people a day, up from 18 mg the year before. This was 3 percent of Australia’s 730 mg seen last year, and 41 percent of the European Union’s 56 mg.

The wastewater had 0.6 mg of cocaine per 1,000 people a day, up from 0.3 mg the previous year. By comparison, last year, Australia had 400 mg and the European Union 273 mg.

Abuse of prescription drugs remains one of the “main gateways to addiction,” she said.

Last year, one in three South Koreans has been prescribed narcotics for medical use. The ministry has developed a system that lets doctors know if a patient has been prescribed the same drug recently, and how frequently.

“We’ve had this problem where people hoard fentanyl patches, used for chronic pain therapy, going from hospital to hospital. That was possible because there wasn’t a log that can tell the doctor whether a patient has been given this medication at a different hospital,” she said.

“The prescription of these medications are not being logged real-time in the system. So we’re trying to close this loophole.”

At the end of her term, the minister said her goal is to bring down the second conviction rate to 20 percent or lower from the current 36 percent.

“Drug addiction destroys a family. I hope that as the drug safety minister, I can help keep our community safe and healthy. I want to help South Korea’s youth grow into healthy adults.”

Oh Yu-kyoung is South Korea’s seventh minister of food and drug safety. Before taking office as minister on May 27, she served as a professor of pharmacy at her alma mater Seoul National University for 13 years from 2009. She also taught at Korea University from 2005-09 and at CHA University from 1999-2005. She was the president of the Korean Society of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Technology from January to May.

By Kim Arin (