The recent spread of so-called legal drugs among youngsters in the Tokyo metropolitan area has alarmed drug officials.

Various drugs are on show at a sex shop in Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho district.

While the drugs — which do not fall under regulated categories of narcotics or stimulants — are legal, metro officials warn they are potentially harmful and are sometimes used in connection with sex crimes.

But the officials acknowledge that little can be done to check the trend under the current legal framework.

Mostly smuggled from the United States and Europe, and sold mainly at sex shops, the street drugs started gaining popularity with youth about six years ago.

Rumors in the media of celebrities using such drugs at the time, as well as easy access to information and transactions over the Internet, further expanded the market.

Since 1996, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been conducting surveys on drug sales and collecting drugs from peddlers for research.

According to an analysis of 30 samples collected last autumn, six were found to contain chemicals that are controlled by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law. The analysis revealed that, despite the apparent legal loophole, chemicals in some of the drugs are almost as dangerous as illegal drugs.

One of them, a capsule called e-booster, on sale for 6,000 yen from a shop in Taito Ward, was found to contain 8.1 percent hydrochloric acid ephedrine — a substance found in medicines for asthma and common colds. Officials warn it can cause headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations and, in large doses, cardiac arrest.

Drugs with over 10 percent hydrochloric acid ephedrine are regulated under the Stimulants Control Law.

Another drug, called G, obtained at a shop in Shibuya Ward, was found to contain 1,4 butanediol (BD). BD, widely used in the U.S. in dietary supplements for weight control and to aid sleep, came into circulation as a substitute for gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) and gamma butyrolactone (GBL).

In August 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings on the serious side effects of BD, GHB and GBL. The FDA cited 122 cases of serious illness, including three resulting in death, and it fingered GHB as being found in drugs used in date rape cases.

In Japan, a 16-year-old girl in Shiga Prefecture was found dead in September from an overdose of GHB.

While the metro government has been issuing warnings to shops and to magazines that advertise the drugs, their popularity shows no sign of abating.

According to the government’s Pharmaceutical Affairs Division and the Metropolitan Police Department, the only way for authorities to intervene is to charge dealers for unlicensed transactions of medical products under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law.

But penalties under this law are lenient compared with other drug charges. While possession of stimulants carries up to 10 years in prison, an unlicensed transaction carries only up to three years in prison and up to 2 million yen in fines.

Also, authorities rarely take legal action against unlicensed transactions.

“It is very difficult to file charges for pharmaceutical law violations,” one metro official said. “Some shops continue selling these drugs despite repeated warnings, but we cannot file charges against them unless we catch them selling the same products.”

Peddlers are well aware of this point. “There is no one foolish enough to get caught,” said a 31-year-old clerk at a sex shop in Shinjuku Ward’s Kabuki-cho district.

“People from the metro government visit here, but we don’t make the mistake of selling the same drugs after a warning.”

The shop always stocks at least 20 kinds of drugs, sometimes nearly 100, and takes orders via the Internet and telephone.

The clerk explained that the drugs fall into three categories: research chemical, natural and party drugs.

He added that they are smuggled in from the U.S., Canada, and Europe — especially the Netherlands.

He said most of the shop’s clients are around 20 years old. “Clients know a lot about drugs, getting information on the Internet. They also boast to each other in Internet chat rooms about how many drugs they have tried.”

The clerk told of one client, a middle-aged woman, who mistakenly overdosed on an hallucinatory drug called 2C-T-7. Although she was taken to a hospital by ambulance, she was discharged after one day.

He said selling such legal drugs is very lucrative. “We can make several million yen a day when our stock matches clients’ demand.”

The business is growing rapidly these days, with at least 10 shops operating in the Shinjuku area alone.

“I think it is very difficult for the authorities to regulate these drugs,” he said. “For one thing, we can just make a little change to the chemical formula even if they ban specific drugs.”

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