Korea gets druggier and teens are the youngest victims

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Korea gets druggier and teens are the youngest victims

“Do you want to try it? It feels really good, and it helps you lose weight too. One time can’t hurt.”
Those were the words heard by a 17-year-old student as she was handed a syringe by a man in his thirties, whom she met through a slightly older friend.  

He was lying. The first time led to another, and another — and an addiction.

Arrested by the police last year, the 17-year-old student admitted she made a mistake taking that first injection. But the older man wasn't honest at all with her. “If I knew it was methamphetamine inside that syringe, I would have never done it in the first place.”
Korea is developing a teen drug problem, its size difficult to estimate. One indication: over 100 million individual purchases every year of drugs from overseas, according to the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office.
Importing, manufacturing, trading, buying, selling, transporting, possessing, and using drugs are all considered drug crimes in Korea.  
Most narcotics are legally banned and the few that are legal are solely for medicinal purposes.
Since the establishment of the Narcotics Control Act in 2000, the use of drugs have decreased significantly. Because of Korea’s relatively low rate of drug crime, many consider Korea a drug-free nation.  
Increasingly that is not the case.
“Based on the UN’s standards, if the number of drug offenders exceeds 20 in a population of 100,000, it means that drugs aren’t under control and it is not a drug-free nation,” said Cheon young-hoon, a psychiatric specialist and director of Incheon Chamsarang Hospital.  
“Considering Korea’s population of 50 million, the number of drug offenders per 100,000 is actually more than 30.”  
According to the “White Paper on Narcotics Crimes” (2012-2021) from the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, the number of teenage drug offenders prosecuted last year reached a record high of 450 compared to only 41 in 2011.  
The increase has picked up in the past five years, from 119 people in 2017 to 143 people in 2018, 239 people in 2019, 313 people in 2020 and 450 people in 2021.  
The actual number of teenage drug offenders could exceed 10,000 yearly.  
“It is estimated that the actual number of drug offenders is 28.57 times the number of arrested offenders," said Park Seong-soo, a professor of criminal justice at Semyung University. "So the actual number of teenage drug offenders is about 12,857, even though only 450 have been caught.”
“For many teenage drug crimes, parents keep them hidden from the authorities,” said an expert from an investigative agency. "The voluntary report rate is also very low, close to zero."  
Because anyone even remotely related to a drug crime is considered a drug offender, drug crimes stay extremely well-hidden. Drug rings and criminal organizations that deal drugs are fanatical about secrecy.  
Unlike violent crimes such as murder, robbery and rape, there are countless drug crimes that investigative agencies are unaware of, which is why experts can only roughly estimate the actual number.  
The average age of drug offenders has been rapidly decreasing.
People in their 40s accounted for 38 percent of all drug offenders in 2012, which decreased to 21.7 percent in 2019. People in their 20s took over the top spot in 2021, reaching 31.4 percent, 5,077 people. They only accounted for 8.2 percent in 2011.
Experts believe that drug offenders in their 20s first encountered drugs during their teenage years.  
“I made a lot of easy money,” a 19-year-old girl confessed after being caught. "I’d buy drugs from an older guy cheaply, then resell them to my friends at a much higher price. It wasn’t complicated.  
“I’ve tried methamphetamines, ketamine, synthetic drugs and ecstasy. Before Covid-19, I borrowed a friend’s ID card, went clubbing and took drugs. During Covid-19, my friends and I rented party rooms and hotels to do drugs.  
“I live in Gangnam. I’m a student. My parents are ordinary people.”
“It’s the ordinary students we see around us that end up with drugs," said Kim Dae-gyu, head of the South Gyeongsang Police Drug Investigation Unit. "It doesn’t matter the level of education or home environment. It could be anyone.”
The types of drugs used by teenagers have expanded over the years, ranging from cannabis and methamphetamines to MDMA, or ecstasy. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, was revealed to be commonly used by hip-hop rappers in 2019 and started becoming sought-after among teenagers.  
Since May 2021, the South Gyeongsang Police caught about 50 high school students selling, buying, and using illegally prescribed fentanyl. 
In June, about 100 teenagers were caught using illegally prescribed dietamine in 13 out of 15 provinces. Dietamine, though normally prescribed as an appetite suppressant, is also a psychotropic drug derived from amphetamines that produces hallucinations and has addictive properties.  
Along with getting illegal prescriptions from hospitals, teenagers use secret chat rooms for purchasing drugs. To avoid records of bank transfers, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoins are usually the main method of payment.  
In November 2021, a drug-trading chat room was discovered on the Telegram messaging service. Prosecutor Lee Jae-in from the Incheon District Prosecutor’s Office charged all 180 members of the chat room with being members of a criminal organization. Many teenagers were on the list. 
This was the first time criminal organization allegations were made against drug offenders.
“Among all drug crimes, only 30 percent use the traditional method of physically delivering payments or making bank account transfers,” wrote prosecutor Lee in a research paper in March. "About 70 percent use chat rooms such as Telegram to transfer payments in cryptocurrencies without revealing any of their personal information."  
As the number of teenage drug crimes increases, authorities have said that “the problem of teenage drug usage is not entirely due to the lack of crackdowns in CIQ (Immigration Control, Customs Inspection, Quarantine), but also due to the lack of preventive education.”  
The police recently asked the Ministry of Education to teach teens about drugs in schools.  
“Preventive education should emphasize the side effects of drugs and the fact that being associated with drug crimes in any way can be punished by law, even when underage," said a police source. "Young people should be educated on how harmful drugs are.”  
It's easy for drugs to enter Korea with the relatively loose CIQ (Immigration Control, Customs Inspection, Quarantine) system.  
Drugs for medical use are also misused. Illegal sales of drugs and prescriptions from the medical field make up a large portion of the illegal drug supply.  
According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and the Korea Customs Service, their budgets aren’t big enough to deploy professionals to hold back the tide of drugs.  
In 2021, the amount of drugs confiscated by customs and prosecution reached a record high of 1,295.7 kilograms, more than a four-fold increase from 2020, implying that much more entered the nation than previous years.  
“Once drugs start spreading, it is very difficult to reverse it,” said Hong Wan-hee, head of the Narcotics and Organized Crime Division of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office.  
Experts mention that Korea’s insufficient treatment and rehabilitation centers are also a huge problem.  
Korea does not have properly equipped, functional rehabilitation centers because of the prevailing notion that there aren’t many drug addicts here. Without treatment and rehabilitation, relapses are inevitable.  
“A lack of rehabilitation and treatment is simply encouraging relapses,” said Hong.
“If comprehensive measures are not taken quickly, the day may come when Korea becomes a so-called 'developed drug nation.'” You might see the government handing out syringes for drug addicts,” said Hong.

BY KIM MIN-JOONG [kjdnational@joongang.co.kr]
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