A Justice Ministry report released last month says the number of Cannabis Control Law violations set a record in 2006, while the amount of marijuana seized dropped to half from the previous year.

Some experts fear this indicates a rise in casual mar ijuana use by a broader population.

Following are basic questions and answers about cannabis in Japan:

What does the Cannabis Control Law stipulate?

Enacted in 1948, the Cannabis Control Law bans the import, export, cultivation, sales and purchase of marijuana buds and leaves. Penalties depend on the amount of marijuana involved, but violations, especially involving commercial use of pot, can lead to a 10-year prison term and ¥3 million fine.

Possession or sale of marijuana (hemp) seeds and products using hemp fibers are not prohibited, but research involving cannabis buds and leaves, including for medical studies, is illegal.

How long has hemp been around in Japan and how has it been used?

Throughout history, hemp has been a crucial plant for making strong fabric fibers, as well as weaving cloth used during Imperial coronations. The oldest hemp seeds and fabrics have been found buried in Fukui Prefecture that date back some 10,000 years.

Because only the leaves and buds of marijuana contain a psychoactive substance, nongerminated hemp seeds are consumed as “shichimi” spices today and are used in pet foods. Hemp is also essential in creating Shinto ritual ropes and crafting “shimenawa” sacred straw festoons for sumo yokozuna.

Where do legal hemp products come from?

Many are imported, but local governments grant licenses to farmers to grow hemp for fabrics and seeds for consumption. Approximately 90 percent of Japan’s commercial hemp is produced by licensed farmers in Tochigi Prefecture.

The prefecture’s health and welfare bureau issued 25 hemp-farming licenses in fiscal 2006, and such licenses are only for growing Tochigi Shiro hemp, a kind of marijuana with little euphoric potency.

However, wild cannabis has been known to sprout in early summer, including in Hokkaido, where inmates at Abashiri prison in September found three pot plants growing inside its facilities.

In 2003, Hokkaido’s health and welfare bureau cut down 1.47 million wild marijuana plants, or approximately 80 percent of the wild cannabis found in Japan.

How much cannabis is produced worldwide?

According to the World Drug Report issued by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, 42,000 metric tons of cannabis were believed to have been produced in 2005. The number dwarfs the 472 metric tons of heroin and 980 metric tons of cocaine produced in the same year.

The report said cannabis is grown in at least 172 countries and territories.

While some places, including the Netherlands, have legalized marijuana, others, including Singapore, impose the death penalty for people found in possession of more than 500 grams.

Although marijuana use constitutes a crime in the U.S., some states have decriminalized it, especially where pot is used in medical research. Marijuana’s reported positive effects include the prevention of migraines, easing the pain of arthritis and that of cancer patients and stimulating the appetite of people with AIDS.

What are recent trends in illegal marijuana use in Japan?

The Justice Ministry’s latest white paper on crime, released in November, reported a record 2,423 cases of violations in 2006, up from 2,063 in 2005. However, in 2006, only 421 kg of marijuana was confiscated, compared with 972 kg in 2005 and 1,055 kg in 2004.

How much does marijuana cost in Japan?

According to a U.N. report, a gram costs an average of $58.30 in Japan, compared with $9.80 in the Netherlands and $20.50 in Singapore.

In Mexico, where 1,781 tons of marijuana were seized in 2005, or 38 percent of total worldwide confiscations, the wholesale price for a kilogram was $79.

“In a sense, police are contributing to the high price of marijuana in Japan because of the tough regulations. And the high cost translates into more profit for criminal syndicates,” said Koichi Maeda, an advocate of decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Is anyone trying to decriminalize possession?

Approximately 500 people paraded in Tokyo last May during Marijuana March 2007, in which they called for decriminalization of possession and use of pot.

Maeda, who owns a shop and restaurant in Tokyo that legally sells hemp products, cosmetics and hemp cuisine, wants the Justice Ministry to no longer handle marijuana possession cases in the same way as that of amphetamine or other heavy drug use.

“Research for medical use of marijuana is not uncommon overseas. (Possession) is not something that someone should be imprisoned for,” Maeda said.

Maeda, who in 1999 founded the Japan Medical Marijuana Association in a bid to legalize pot for medicinal purposes, claims the government should at least support medical research and manage the distribution of marijuana to weaken the black market.

What is the government’s position on marijuana?

The Drug Abuse Prevention Center, which is under joint supervision of the health ministry and the National Police Agency, has issued warnings that marijuana use can damage the immune and respiratory systems, as well as induce manic-depression.

Maeda argues there is no evidence to back up these claims, and that alcohol and tobacco can also trigger similar symptoms. He pointed to the recent arrest of two rugby players from Kanto Gakuin University who were cultivating marijuana in a Kanagawa Prefecture condo. Twelve other members of the team later admitted smoking marijuana.

“How is it possible the rugby players were able to practice and stay fit for their games if marijuana severely damages your body and mind, as the government suggests?” Maeda asked.

However, the decriminalization movement has stalled, especially since a Supreme Court ruling in 1985 stated the dangers of marijuana use and backed the cannabis law.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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