In Korea's teen drug problem, the adults are not all right

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In Korea's teen drug problem, the adults are not all right

In this social media post, a teenager advertises for sale dietamine, an appetite suppressor made from phentermine, an amphetamine under the Narcotics Control Act.  [GANGNAM POLICE PRECINCT]

In this social media post, a teenager advertises for sale dietamine, an appetite suppressor made from phentermine, an amphetamine under the Narcotics Control Act. [GANGNAM POLICE PRECINCT]

Korea saw a record number of drug arrests for teenagers in 2021, 450 in all, and kids were not the only ones to blame. Adults are at fault too.
Q: I’m addicted to propofol. I don’t think I can’t go a day without it — what should I do? Help me.  
A: From now on, don’t go to a different hospital, come to us.  
This was a conversation between an 18-year-old high schooler and a licensed doctor in Seoul, as reported by the JoongAng Ilbo in a series of articles on teenage drug crimes.  
The doctor certainly knew that propofol, the anesthetic and amnesiac drug implicated in the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson, could potentially lead to severe addiction. Yet his first concern was continuing to supply it to the patient, ignoring the student’s call for help.
Out of greed, hospitals and pharmacies have been selling drugs to teens that shouldn't have been getting them.  
Because they do, Korean teens have been getting high off illegally prescribed drugs rather than traditional recreational drugs. Most teen drug addictions stem from painkillers, sleeping anesthetics and appetite suppressors.  
These drugs are legal in the medical field.
“Just as some stores sell alcohol and cigarettes to minors," says Rapper Satsuki, who has recovered from a two-year fentanyl addiction, "there are hospitals that sell fentanyl.”
Fentanyl, a global scourge, is prescribed in Korea for extreme pain, often for terminal cancer patients.  
“I came into contact with drugs while studying in the United States,” says a 19-year-old student. “When I came back to Korea, it was difficult to find hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin, but other drugs were so easy.”
“I was so surprised when the pharmacy gave me everything I asked for. I even asked for ativan and alprazolam (benzodiazepine-based tranquilizers).” Alprazolam is sold under the name Xanax abroad.
Some doctors may have been deceived by teenagers who claim to be in severe pain, but experts say the main factor at play is revenue.  
“At some hospitals, fentanyl patches are prescribed to patients as they wish,” said a police investigator. “Ten sheets of patches are more than enough for a month. But when patients return for more after ten days, the doctor prescribes another ten sheets without any questions asked.”
When accused of violating prescription guidelines by police, a doctor responded, “The patient says he was in severe pain. I couldn’t refuse treatment.”  
Some pharmacists are setting themselves up as drug clearing houses -- and word gets out among the teens to go to them for their pharmacological needs.
“When patients ask for a certain type of drug, the pharamacist asks doctors to write illegal prescriptions," a pharmacist working in Seocho disclosed, "then sells the drugs.

“They secretly stock thousands of drug tablets for this purpose.”
In June 2021, a pharmacist in Seoul was convicted of dispensing mass amounts of drugs by conspiring with doctors and hospital officials. He would tell doctors what patients wanted, doctors would write illegal prescriptions, then he dispensed thousands of tablets of drugs to patients. He was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 23 million won ($17,700).
“Doctors with multiple prescription violations are punished accordingly,” says a police investigator.  
“But doctors with just a few illegal prescriptions can get away with a small fine and no other restraints. It’s difficult to punish all of them.”  
In fact, a remedy to the problem of shady prescriptions of drugs has been instituted. But it hasn't done much good.
In March 2021, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety introduced the Medical Shopping Prevention Information Network, which allows doctors to check the medication history of patients during treatment. “Excessive and overlapping prescriptions of drugs will be prevented,” it promised.
But doctors evade the network.  
According to data collected by Seo Young-seok, a Democratic Party legislator and member of the National Assembly Health and Welfare Committee, only 2,038 out of 110,000 doctors — 1.8 percent — used the Medical Shopping Prevention Information Network in 2021.  
Some 31,493 cases of use of the Medical Shopping Prevention Information Network were recorded in 2021, which is low compared to the vast number of prescriptions in the period. Even fentanyl prescriptions in 2021 numbered 1,135,797.
From January to May of this year, the number of doctors who used the Medical Shopping Prevention Information Network was 1,093, and the number of uses was 17,308, even lower than in 2021.  
“The Medical Shopping Prevention Information Network isn’t being used," Rep. Seo says, "because there is no requirement to do so.”  
Some say doctors should get drug-related re-education even after obtaining their qualification certificates and degrees.
“Some doctors are unaware of the addictiveness of certain drugs," says a representative of a law firm. "Some aren’t properly educated on the dangers."  
Parents have a substantial measure of the blame too.
So-called education extremist parents, Korea's version of Tiger Moms, have illegally obtained methylphenidate, a drug used to treat ADHD (hyperactivity disorder) and known by the name Ritalin, after hearing it was a “tablet that helps you study.” Before the annual math scholastics exam, these parents fed their children methylphenidate.  
Many cases of illegal methylphenidate prescriptions have been identified by the police.
When teenagers who don’t have ADHD regularly take methylphenidate, they may experience side effects such as headaches, anxiety, hallucinations, delusions and depression. Studies show that suicide attempts are more common among adolescents that take methylphenidate.
Park Young-deok, director of rehabilitation guidance at the Korea Anti-Drug Headquarters said, “There are a lot of teenagers who are addicted to methylphenidate because of their parents’ excessive ambition.”
“Many parents are willing to go to the extent of feeding their children drugs for better test scores.”
Media reports intended to warn families about drugs have had the opposite effect.
“There were many cases in which teens read media reports about how teenagers obtain drugs,” says Park Jin-sil, a lawyer at the Jinsil law firm. "That's how they learned how to do it.”

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