South Korean Police Accuse 17 U.S. Soldiers of Drug Crimes

The police in South Korea on Wednesday accused 17 American soldiers and five other people of distributing or using synthetic marijuana that had been brought into the country through the U.S. military’s postal service.

The police said they had not arrested any of the soldiers, but that they had asked prosecutors to file charges against all 22 people. A Philippine national and a South Korean national were under arrest, said the police in the city of Pyeongtaek. Synthetic marijuana is an illegal substance in South Korea.

Cha Min-seok, a senior detective, said the drug investigation was one of the largest in recent years involving American soldiers. Most of the distribution of the drug had taken place on U.S. bases, through soldiers communicating on Snapchat, Detective Cha said. Two of the civilians were a soldier’s spouse and another soldier’s fiancée, he said.

In South Korea, after the police finish a criminal investigation, prosecutors review it, sometimes conducting their own probe, before deciding whether to bring indictments.

The United States Forces Korea, which oversees the roughly 28,500 American troops stationed in the country, had no immediate comment. The police said its four-month investigation had begun with a tip from the U.S. Army’s criminal investigation division.

Illegal drug use is much less common in South Korea than in the United States, but the government says it is on the upswing, especially among younger people, and it has been promising to crack down on it more vigorously. Even before this incident, the South Korean authorities had long viewed the U.S. military bases scattered around the country as potential sources of drug trafficking.

The police in Pyeongtaek, where the U.S. Army base Camp Humphreys is located, said a 24-year-old U.S. soldier there had received about 12 ounces of synthetic marijuana through the military postal service. The substance was smuggled in disguised as e-cigarette liquid and mixed with vaping liquid, the police said.

Synthetic marijuana is a term for a variety of substances that mimic THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. Some of the substances are banned in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Synthetic marijuana is often sold in the United States under the names Spice and K2.

The police, as is customary in South Korea, did not release the names of any of the 22 suspects. They said seven of them, including five soldiers, were involved in the sale of the drug, 12 were users and three acted as go-betweens.

The police said they seized about 2.7 ounces of the drug, and $12,850 in suspected proceeds from its sale, during their investigation, which involved executing multiple search warrants on U.S. bases in Pyeongtaek and the city of Dongducheon.

By South Korean law, those convicted of exporting or importing marijuana or possessing it for such purposes can face from five years to life in prison. Those who sell or buy marijuana face a minimum of one year in prison. Those who use it can be sentenced to up to five years in prison or fined up to $37,600.

The police’s announcement was another embarrassment for United States Forces Korea, two months after Pvt. Travis T. King, an American soldier who had served jail time for assault charges in South Korea, crossed the border into North Korea.

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