The government said Wednesday it will introduce a comprehensive ban on substances that are chemically similar to prohibited narcotics but are technically legal.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will introduce the catch-all system as early as February after soliciting public comments, officials said.
The ministry plans to first designate 774 synthetic cannabis drugs as subject to an import, production and sales ban, the officials said. Another synthetic cannabis drug has already been banned.
The new designations will represent a substantial expansion of the pharmaceutical law, which now covers 90 drugs.
The law provides for up to five years in prison or a fine of up to ¥5 million for selling banned drugs for commercial purposes.
The ministry plans to gradually expand the designation in a bid to allow regional governments and police to swiftly clamp down on a wide range of drugs that produce narcotic effects, including hallucinations.
The increasing abuse of these drugs among youths has become a social issue in recent years, causing a spike in people taken to hospitals for acute drug intoxication, as well as traffic offenses police allege are caused by drivers under the influence of such substances.
The drugs are typically sold in adult goods shops or on the street, according to Sakae Komori, a lawyer well-versed in the issue.
Popular varieties in the past have included magic mushrooms.
Testing every loophole drug for possible effects requires a considerable amount of time, and new versions derived from existing substances with slight variations in their chemical composition have often appeared, resulting in a cat-and-mouse game between the sector and the authorities.
The pharmaceutical law provides for up to five years in prison or a maximum fine of ¥5 million for those who sell illegal substances as a business.