Tuesday’s fatal accident in which a motorist reportedly under the influence of “dappo” herbs killed a pedestrian on a Tokyo sidewalk was just one more sign that abuse of the quasi-legal narcotic is rising, experts say.
The incident on a bustling street near the west exit of Ikebukuro Station also injured seven people.
Witnesses told reporters that the man at the wheel was drooling and appeared exhausted. Use of dappo herbs, sometimes referred to as synthetic cannabis, is known to cause dangerous effects such as hallucinations, intoxication and euphoria.
A rise in traffic accidents caused by dappo herbs has raised health and public safety alarms in recent years.
The National Police Agency says 40 drivers were under the influence of dappo herbs when they were involved in traffic accidents in 2013, up from 19 people in 2012.
Police allege the suspect, Keiji Nagura, 37, of Saitama Prefecture, was under the influence of the herbs when he entered the opposite lane and crossed onto the sidewalk. They said Nagura claimed he had no memory of what happened before the accident.
The police quoted him as saying he bought some dappo herbs at a shop in Ikebukuro and smoked them before driving. He also reportedly said he had used the herbs repeatedly, leading the police to suspect he may be addicted.
Dappo are dried herbs laced with stimulant chemicals whose components are slightly different from those prohibited by drug abuse laws.
Production, sale and import of dappo herbs are prohibited by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, but until recently, possession and use were not banned. It was not until last April that the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law was finally revised to make possession and use illegal.
Additionally, in April, the health ministry added 10 chemicals to its list of 1,378 “designated drugs” that are proven to have some kind of negative effect on the human body.
Producing, selling, importing, possessing or using any of these designated drugs can draw as much as three years in prison or a fine of up to ¥3 million.
However, the multitude of chemicals used in dappo herbs can easily be changed, allowing them to slip through the legal cracks. As such, efforts to control dappo herb abuse have been something of a whack-a-mole game for the ministry.
“We know that we need to further tighten the regulations. However, it takes a substantial amount of time to prove that certain chemicals used in dappo herbs pose health risks to people,” said Manabu Fuchioka, a health ministry official in charge of drug abuse measures. “Also, we can add new dappo herb ingredients to the list of banned chemicals, but vendors can easily alter the ingredients slightly.”
Nao Mazaki, a coordinator in the Japan branch of the U.S.-based Foundation for a Drug-Free World, a nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate all addictive drugs, including dappo herbs, said that educating people would be much more effective than regulation.
“Of course, regulating dappo herbs by law is important, but that’s not enough to control the spread,” Mazaki said.
“We need to educate the public about why we shouldn’t use dappo drugs, which are harmful to human beings,” Mazaki said. She stressed that such efforts need to be aimed at youths as well as adults.
“What is worrisome is that dappo herbs are spreading not just among adults, but even among teens, because they can be obtained quite easily at shops and via the Internet,” she said.
Many users think smoking dappo herbs is not that different from smoking tobacco, Mazaki said.
“Even adults don’t know how harmful it can be. Some schoolteachers have told me they didn’t know what dappo herbs were,” she said. “They thought it was the name of a plant.
“Both students and the adults involved in educating them should have correct knowledge about dappo herbs. The earlier the better, so we should start educating children at the elementary school level and up.”