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QUASI-LEGAL HERBS

Curbs afoot as narcotic quasi-legal herbs slip through regulatory cracks

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

The use of “dappo habu” (quasi-legal herbs) that are dried and mixed with stimulants to make narcotics is spreading, and many people are ending up in hospitals for drug poisoning.

Some people under the influence of the herbs, which are often smoked, have even caused traffic accidents.

Figures by the Metropolitan Police Department show that increasing numbers of younger people are using them.

Between Jan. 1 and May 30 alone, 100 people in Tokyo needed to be rushed to hospitals after inhaling the herbs, including 51 in their 20s and 13 under 20 years old. The youngest was a 14-year-old junior high school student, according to MPD statistics.

Experts say the unregulated herbs appeared on the Internet around 2004 and have been directly marketed in Japan since around 2009. They warn the herbs can pose serious health risks and the government is trying to legally curb their use.

What exactly are the quasi-legal herbs in question?

They are a mixture of herbs laced with stimulants whose chemical components are slightly different from those found in illegal narcotics.

The products are usually packaged as “herbal incense,” but most people who purchase them smoke them to get high. The herbs are usually of two types, one offering a sensation akin to smoking cannabis and the other more like a stimulant, experts said.

They are marketed at shops, on the Internet and even in vending machines, costing about ¥4,000 or ¥5,000 for a pouch containing about 3 grams.

Some of the shops also sell unregulated liquid “aroma” and “bath salt” powders that are mixed with the narcoticlike chemicals.

How many shops sell the herbs?

There were 389 dealers in 29 prefectures who were selling the herbs as of March, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said.

By prefecture, Tokyo had the most, at 94, followed by 73 in Osaka and 34 in Aichi.

The number of vendors is increasing rapidly. In Tokyo, the number of identified stores and online shops selling the herb mixture surged from only two in 2009 to 97 as of June 14, according to the metropolitan government.

If the herbs are quasi-legal, does this mean it is OK to sell them?

Even if quasi-legal herbs do not contain banned substances, vendors can be violating the law if they sell them specifically for ingestion, according to a health ministry official.

But all sellers have to do is tell authorities they are selling the herbs as “incense” to avoid legal action, the official said.

What kinds of health risks do the herbs pose?

Some of the quasi-legal herbs contain synthetic cannabinoid, a chemical substance that is similar to cannabis but more harmful, according to Masahiko Funada, who heads a group of researchers on addictive drugs at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry in Tokyo.

“There certainly is a possibility of addiction,” Funada said. “Synthetic cannabinoid’s toxicity is very high.”

Recently, the chemical compound alpha-PVP, which is similar to a stimulant drug, was also found in “herb incense,” the expert said.

“The most dangerous part of this quasi-legal herb is that you never know exactly what it contains. And you never know how much the product contains,” Funada said, noting that no two packages are likely to have the same level of ingredients.

Funada also warned that the gray-zone herbs are increasingly being made with more diverse chemicals.

The “herbal mixture products” used to contain only one or two kinds of synthetic cannabinoid. But variations of the blends have been increasing recently, such as those with three synthetic cannabinoids or mixtures of alpha-PVP and synthetic cannabinoids.

And it is difficult to guess what harm these new mixes pose, Funada warned.

He said people who ingest the concoctions are turning themselves into human guinea pigs. “I want people to recognize that it is really dangerous.”

Why aren’t such harmful drugs criminalized? Aren’t there laws to ban them?

It depends on whether an herbal mixture contains a government-designated narcotic substance.

The government targets substances that have been proven to have a harmful effect on health, including those that cause hallucinations or intoxication.

The Pharmaceutical Affairs Law bans making, importing, selling, giving or storing for sale drugs designated as illegal.

As of Monday, there were 77 so-designated chemical substances. Violators face less than five years in prison or a fine under ¥5 million.

However, the law does not ban the possession or use of such designated illegal drugs, thus leaving users off the hook.

To curb the abuse of quasi-legal drugs, the government is trying to list their ingredients as designated illegal drugs so dealers can’t sell them.

The health ministry wants to speed up the designation process, which now can take more than a year because their danger must be proven and backed by experts.

But how effective the designation will be is questionable, because even if the ministry lists more chemical substances as designated narcotics, dealers will slightly alter their chemical structures to stay within the legal loopholes.

“It’s like playing cat-and-mouse,” said Nahomi Oonuki, a section chief at the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

“Whenever we list a new chemical substance as a designated drug, another one with a slightly different (chemical structure) comes out. This happens repeatedly,” Oonuki said.

Is there any way the central or local governments can ban quasi-legal drugs?

The health ministry plans to introduce a more comprehensive system for designating illegal drug components. The envisioned new system enables the government to designate several substances at once that have the same basic chemical structure.

The ministry said they are scheduled to hold a panel meeting around November to discuss the establishment of the new system.

It also plans to set up a call center this fiscal year to solicit information from the public on quasi-legal herbs.

Apart from central government-mandated curbs, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has its own ordinance for designating drug components. As of Friday, five drug components were listed as governor-designated illegal drugs, after the substances were confirmed to cause hallucinations, intoxication or other euphoria and, in abusive quantities, be harmful to health.

The sales of governor-designated illegal drugs would be subject to punishment.

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