[Interview] An inside look at drugs in Korea from a former drug dealer

With the recent influx of drug-related scandals hitting Korean entertainment, interest in how the drug trade works in the country is at an all-time high, and I see constant questions and speculation about it.

As luck would have it, I was recently anonymously contacted by a whistleblower of sorts who saw my generally sympathetic stance towards celebrities busted for marijuana. He aimed to share his experiences within the Korean drug trade, both so that international fans have a better understanding of how things work and how drugs are viewed in Korea, and also because he believes that the way they are handled in Korea legally (marijuana in particular) is unjust to the so-called perpetrators.

As somebody who has been busted for drugs and has since quit the industry, he has the ability to provide a unique insider look at things.

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Asian Junkie: Hello, please introduce yourself to the readers.

Whistleblower: I’m Mr. E, a Korean-American gyopo who spent 2009-16 in Seoul, South Korea initially working as sort of a “helper” within the entertainment — specifically music — industry thanks to some family connections in the business. At first I did all the mundane tasks like grabbing their coffee and walking their dogs and what not. I ended up befriending a lot of well-known people in the industry, so I graduated from menial tasks to organizing parties, introducing people, and being a liaison for others — and generally doing whatever was needed if the price was right. My own drug connections made me extremely well-liked even if the person didn’t want to like me.

AJ: How did you get into the drug trade in Korea?

WB: I never intended for it to happen, and it started with using my own drugs that were smuggled into the country. Drinking is extremely fun in Korea, but it gets boring when it’s all you can do. I will always and forever smoke weed, so I started a system to bring it over to satisfy my urges. Once a week on a Saturday night, I would go to the roof of the tallest skyscraper in my neighborhood, blaze up a joint with nobody in sight, and just gaze out into the endless abyss of lights. It was my only piece of sanity in a frantic dog eat dog world.
 
The night everything changed was after the finale concert of a well-known K-pop band that I was currently working with. There was a dinner party after the concert as a celebration, an entire two-story BBQ restaurant rented out for the band, management, and staff. As usual, a lot of drinking commenced and I stupidly thought I could possibly get a quick toke in outside while smoking a cigarette. I walked around the corner behind a wall, then took a hit of weed followed by a puff of the cigarette to mask the smell. I was just about to put away my pipe when I heard a familiar voice behind me, and it was a member from the band who had been smoking a cigarette in the dark right next to me that I had not noticed in my haste to get high. After panicking and making up a lame excuse, he asked me straight up if I was smoking weed. I couldn’t hide it at that point so I told him yes and begged him not to tell anyone, but while I was doing that he told me he wouldn’t tell anyone and that he also always wanted to try but was too scared to even ask anyone. We made an awkward deal that neither of us would say anything about this if I could hook him up with some weed and show him how to smoke.

And that is how everything began. Long story short, through this individual, I became a supplier for many different people in the industry. I was just that “gyopo who can get anything” because of the system I had to get whatever was requested into the country.

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AJ: Building off that and cutting to the chase of what readers of a K-pop blog want to know, how prevalent do you think drug use is in the music industry?

WB: I do believe that the music industry does significantly more amounts of drugs, both legal and illegal, than other industries in the country due to the type of work they’re in. There are a lot of legal pharmaceuticals that are well known and consumed by many people in the industry in hopes that it will give them that “edge” to perform better, stronger, harder, daft punk.

AJ: So do you think drugs are mainly used for performance, coping, or recreation?

WB: I believe the people doing pharmaceuticals are doing it as a coping mechanism or performance enhancer, while those doing illicit drugs are mainly doing it for recreation and fun.

Curiosity for drugs usually start through pharmaceuticals sadly, sort of like the opiate crisis here in America. From a young age kids are provided a variety of pills and are told that they will help them, and it starts a horrible cycle in some people who will start to seek out more and more, going past just recreational use. I’ll start by listing the different pharmaceutical drugs that I’ve seen being used by stars, and you can judge for yourself on whether you think it’s okay or not.

Modafinil is an little known legal stimulant that’s rapidly growing by word of mouth. The brand name is Provigil and it’s normally used to treat sleepiness from narcolepsy, shift work disorder, or obstructive sleep apnea. It’s comparable to something like between a cup of coffee and an Adderall, and it doesn’t show up on any drug tests. It comes in powder form that you can order in online, and you can take it in capsules, stir it into your coffee, or just gulp it down. Off label, this is a cognitive enhancer and really wakes you up, so obviously there’s potential for abuse here.

Sleeping pills (Z-drugs, specifically) are pretty much standard for any star. I would seriously assume at least half or more take some form of sleep aid at least once a week or more. The main ones are zopiclone and zolpidem, which are the generic names for Ambien and Imovane. I’ve heard about use of Propofol, and there was that one celebrity who got busted for using it, but I’m not too sure how popular that is anymore because it really requires medical supervision and people seem to use it less ever since Michael Jackson died from it.

Benzodiazepines help even the bravest celebrity face a crowd of thousands without any fear or worry. The main ones I’ve seen prescribed in Korea were Ativan and Xanax. These two would immediately help any panic attack or suppress any stress during major events, and they work immediately lasting just a few hours each. You could also get Klonopin (which has a long half life so it lasts all day, not too popular) and, interestingly enough, Halcion (triazolam is the generic name) was easily obtainable through doctors even if you weren’t famous.

Gabapentin and pregabalin are starting to become popular for both recreational and cognitive use. They’re used as a nerve pain medication, but off label it can help anxiety, cause relaxation and sedation, and in bigger dosages you can feel quite drunk. But it’s quite nice in normal dosages because it really helps with dealing with the public from what I’ve been told.

Opiates are strangely easy to come by, at least coming from an American mindset. You can literally tell the doctor what you want and he will prescribe it for you. I’ve seen fentanyl patches being prescribed when only codeine was necessary. Extremely powerful painkillers that are usually for cancer patients, such as dilaudid, oxymorphone, and oxycodone, could be easily obtained and was a great way to spend a day off just completely buzzed off the head. I’m sure there are some closet addicts cause I was one myself for a while, but I didn’t really ask or care if any celebrity did this.

GHB, GBL, and 1,4 can be easy to come by if you look in the right places. Although extremely fun when used recreationally, sadly these are primarily known as date rape drugs in Korea. But I will tell you for a fact that people will do this recreationally in their own in their homes for relaxation or if they don’t particularly feel like drinking.

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AJ: That segues into my next question. Many have noted that rather than typical recreational drugs that are used in the West, Korea seems to favor other drugs that would be odd in a country like America.

WB: Until this year Korea had no cross-reference checks to what medication a patient already has. Because of this, pharmaceutical narcotics are extremely easy to get, and for a while they were not regulated well.

During the early 2000s, with the spread of information getting easier with the internet, Koreans were soon finding out that a lot of the meds they are able to easily obtain in Korea were potent painkillers for cancer, veterinarian tranquilizers, and other extremely dangerous drugs that could easily kill someone if they weren’t being careful. But because it’s considered “medicine”, a lot of people justified their new addiction as not being on the same level as a drug addict, even though it’s the exact same. In a country where even being curious about drugs can land you in hot water, a lot of Koreans merely read the positive effects and blindly trust their hospital when the majority of big hospitals will prescribe anything and everything that a patient will ask for just to retain their patients.

AJ: So unlike Korea’s reputation as a place where drugs are difficult to obtain, that’s not necessarily the case as long as it’s certain kinds of drugs?

WB: There are dozens upon dozens of clinics, hospitals, and hospices that will prescribe you whatever you want no questions asked, and it’s very easy to have them write multiple scripts with multiple names if you pay in cash. I was having a 50/50 chance of landing a prescription from a crooked doctor, and for a while my main hustle was all pharmaceuticals.

The way it was so easy to get multiple fake names is that Korea’s healthcare system is subsidized and virtually everyone uses their citizenship/social security number to get reimbursed for any medical fees. That number is tied to you, you use it to play video games after 10 PM curfew, you use it to vote, you use it for everything. That’s how they track prescriptions and to flag anyone getting too many narcotics in too short of a time. This secret was you can choose to not use your citizenship number, which means you can also use a fake name. Rarely does anyone do this because it means you’ll pay full cost. But it also means your citizenship number will be registered as “00000000000”, essentially a placeholder that had unlimited access to ordering as many prescriptions as you wanted. We loved it because there was no trail back to us, whenever one of us would go to a clinic our story usually revolved around visiting Korea to take advantage of its cheap health care (medical tourism is actually a big % of GDP near Incheon). Doctors loved it because they could artificially boost their own numbers.

AJ: But if the prescriptions were…

WB: Right. “How did I fill up all the prescriptions if they were all in random names?” There is a very famous pharmacy that would — again, for cash — no questions asked fill you up with whatever you needed. It got to the point where we would have to call ahead of time to make sure they hold whatever remaining stock for us. I suspect they have to have police/government ties because they also receive way more narcotics than allowed per pharmacy.

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AJ: The explains how the drugs get out in the market, but for the average person in Korea, how would they find drugs if interested?

WB: The drug scene in Korea is a lot more secretive due to the harsh penalties surrounding it, but there are different ways to go about finding it.

The clubs around Hooker Hill in Itaewon are known for being shady in the clientele they attract. Usually the Itaewon guys will have weed, hash, LSD, and maybe some meth or amphetamines. Surprisingly, cathinone-based drugs are around, a virtually unknown stimulant used in Africa and South Asia. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect to score on any given weekend night if you are really determined for a few hours.

Hongdae requires some Korean language knowledge. For weed or psychedelics, you go to the rock clubs or anything else with a big enough crowd that’s 50/50 Koreans and foreigners. Just look for someone who is having way too much fun but not acting drunk. This has worked surprisingly well in obtaining hooks for cheaper weed, hash, and LSD. Club drugs such as MDMA/meth/MCAT and other designer drugs would occasionally pop up, but this was only done word of mouth through trusted people, so it’s all about who you know.

Prices are extremely ridiculous since they have to import and middle man most of these things. Mid-shelf marijuana was sold between $100-200 a gram, possibly $50-75 if you’re buying in bulk or knew the grower. Hash was sold to me at double the price of weed, but I’m not sure if that is the standard price or a hook up. LSD was being offered at $150-200 a hit and meth about $50-100 per 0.1 grams, cheaper in bulk.

AJ: If a user was uncomfortable with going out in public, could they just use the Internet given how wired Korea is?

WB: Using the Internet is at the very top of the list of “an easy way to find drugs but most likely to get arrested”, whether through Craigslist, Reddit, eBay, or even certain Korean university student forums.

A give away is seeing odd lingo that wouldn’t make sense for an average Korean, but someone familiar with drugs will instantly understand. For example, on Craigslist I had no luck on initial searches until I started using slang and other names. Like if I wanted Suboxone 8 mg (which is an opiate-antagonist to help with withdrawals and cravings) I wouldn’t find any matches, but search up “Subs 8 inches” or something similar and you’ll come across postings where an “orange 8-inch sub will make you feel right if you’re feeling sick” (medication color is orange and medicine used to relieve withdrawal from opiates).

Interestingly and funnily enough, at the start of every semester you will find a few posts on college forums filled with expats asking if they can find some cooking herbs or have any friends like Walter White. It’s absurd, too risky for the payoff, and yet it strangely works because there are always fresh faces and it’s harder to prosecute someone not under Korean law. Remember that Hwang Hana [allegedly] paid off a 20-year-old college student to take her charges, which seems sort of odd, but you ever wonder how the hell they even met or why they hung out, especially if it’s just an exchange semester college kid? Well…

AJ: What about the heavier stuff?

WB: If you’re looking for something heavier, you will need to go to the big-name clubs in Gangnam. A lot of folks there right now are telling me there’s zero tolerance and a strict search policy because everyone is trying to contain the damage to just Burning Sun, although I have a big feeling that another major club is connection with them will be caught and revealed to the public soon.

That said, you can still find drugs outside standing in line asking others who look high, while inside the clubs there is a system to get drugs directly from clientele/employees that’s always evolving but I can explain the basics. A drug dealer, whether an employee or customer, will be working with the club or corrupted management in having immunity and a pass in selling drugs in the club. He will usually be identifiable by an article of clothing, whether its a bracelet, shirt, necklace; always random but known to everyone before he starts. Previous clients will be told of what he’s wearing, naive people asking for a source will only be told to “look for a guy with a red bandana over there” or something like that. There are many variations of this but they exist in nearly every club with a drug trade. By limiting the liability to just one person, the club can get in on this trade and face no trouble if they ever get caught by claiming he was not part of the club. These guys rarely get caught though because they are one of the first people told and hidden from any investigation or bust.

As you already know in about clubs, there is a position called MD (merchandiser, basically concierge) within clubs that caters to every VIP’s demands. While not obtainable for the regular person, the only time I have ever experienced this was when I was at a VIP party of someone who requested a few grams of “fun” for the room and to get it immediately. The MD returned within 30 minutes and client was so happy he not only paid the premium price to use an MD, but tipped more than the cost itself. Through this route you will find nearly everything, but the best product they have that street level won’t is the methamphetamine supposedly smuggled from North Korea, superior No.4 heroin from Myanmar, and MDMA from the Netherlands. This is also where introductions can be made if bigger purchases or special requests need to be made, but due to the danger and paranoia I am not a fan of these.

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AJ: Why share all this about Korea?

WB: Honestly, I think Korea could use marijuana again and I’m not in favor of how it’s been demonized in the decades following the Korean War. It is such a stressed out country, and when the only available vice is alcohol, it leads to a lot of fights, anger, sadness, and horrible health.

When I was there I would come home stressed and angry after work and caved to drinking for a while, which never helped. But the first day I smoked a joint in Korea was the first truly happy day I had there. Alcohol only amplified my feelings, which was dangerous if I was angry or sad. And I don’t like the hypocrisy of passing out drunk in public being acceptable, but possibly smoking weed safe in your room isn’t.

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Honestly, I’m unfamiliar with where this will go from here. Q&A is probably the easiest, so if there are any questions, feel free to ask away. That said, this could stop at any time for obvious reasons.

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