S. Korea to selectively permit marijuana-based drugs approved overseas
SEOUL — In South Korea, marijuana is a strictly banned substance. Even when the purpose is clearly medical, using and importing the herb in any form is a criminal offense. But this is set to change, as local drug regulators are moving to legalize some forms of medical marijuana.
Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said Wednesday that it had set out to amend the narcotics law to legalize the import of selected drugs made with chemicals extracted from marijuana that have been officially approved for medical use overseas.
The move comes in line with an international acceptance of medical marijuana, as well as growing demand from patients and civic groups here that drugs made with marijuana-based substances, such as cannabidiol, be made available for patients suffering from intractable and rare diseases, the ministry said.
Cannabis sativa, the marijuana plant, contains more than 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids. Of them, Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol are the primary chemicals used in medicine. THC is what produces the “high” people feel when smoking or consuming marijuana.
But in Korea, marijuana is broadly defined and strictly banned as a whole, making even the medical use of marijuana-associated treatments illegal.
Korea’s Narcotics Control Act defines “marijuana” as any substance or chemical products made from the plant Cannabis sativa and its resin as raw materials, with the exception of its seeds and roots. Under the law, the importing, exporting, manufacturing and sale of marijuana is strictly banned, with exceptions made for the collecting of seeds and fibers from the cannabis plant for textile production, academic research or state-approved tasks.
To address growing calls for change, the Drug Ministry said it will make supplementary changes to and actively support a bill to amend the local Narcotics Control Act to permit the use of cannabis-based drugs that have been approved globally.
The original bill — proposed by Democratic Party of Korea Rep Shin Chang-hyun to the National Assembly in January — would allow medical uses of marijuana with Drug Ministry approval.
If the bill is passed into law, Korean patients will be permitted access to cannabis-based drugs, such as Sativex, a treatment for epilepsy approved in the UK, France, Germany and Australia, and Epidolex, a US-approved drug which treats epilepsy symptoms such as the Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
However, the ministry pointed out that it is only moving to permit cannabis drugs officially approved overseas, meaning that foods, cannabis oil and cannabis extracts that aren’t officially certified as drugs, would remain banned.
In addition to Sativex and Epidolex, other cannabis-associated drug products currently approved overseas include Marinol (dronabinol), a US-approved drug used to treat wasting syndrome in HIV/AIDS patients, as well as ease nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy. Cesamet (nabilone) is also approved for treating post-chemo nausea.
If the bill passes, patients can purchase cannabis drugs by the following procedures. A patient should obtain an official medical report from a doctor saying that he or she needs the medication, and submit it to the Korea Orphan & Essential Drug Center, a body under the Drug Ministry.
The center will import the appropriate drugs from a vendor overseas and provide them to the patient, the ministry said, adding that it would work with the Korea Medical Association to devise and place appropriate safeguards to ensure that the drugs aren’t abused.
As for continued demand that Korea permit a wider range of medical marijuana products for local use, the ministry said it would continue to collect opinions from patient groups, doctors and civic groups to determine whether such moves are necessary.
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