T.O.P, a member of a K-pop boy group Big Bang, has been lighting up local headlines for… well, lighting up. He is being charged by South Korean prosecutors for smoking marijuana. Many people want him punished for this “indecent” behavior — according to South Korean law, he could face up to five years in prison or pay a 50 million won (44,500 U.S. dollar) fine.
News of T.O.P.’s subsequent hospitalization after overdosing on prescription tranquilizers didn’t win him much public sympathy. While lying in a state of severe lethargy in an intensive care unit, he was dishonorably discharged from the conscript police force.
Making national headlines: news of T.O.P, whose real name is Choi Seung-hyun, smoking marijuana.
But believe it or not, half a century ago this very act of “indecency” would have been as innocuous as smoking a cigarette in South Korea. It was Park Chung-hee, the recently ousted Park Geun-hye’s father and South Korea’s longest-reigning military dictator (1961-1979), who blazed the country’s path to demonizing marijuana.
For thousands of years, hemp plant — known locally as daema — grew on Korean soil. The crop was versatile, used to make ropes, nets and a coarse, ivory-colored fabric called sambe. Its seeds were used as a laxative in traditional medicine. This lucrative plant grew easily in the wild, and Korea’s Japanese occupiers encouraged its cultivation during the colonial period (officially 1910-1945). Whether it was smoked recreationally at that time is unclear.
The Narcotics Act was enacted in 1957 under the Rhee Syngman administration, South Korea’s first government after liberation from Japan. Marijuana (cannabis sativa L, also called “Indian marijuana”), along with poppies, opium and cocaine, was designated a forbidden narcotic — possibly due to the anti-marijuana sentiment that Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ first commander,