Cannabis-related crimes have surged to a new record, stoking public interest following a spate of high-profile arrests related to marijuana use.

A National Police Agency report released Thursday said there were 3,832 pot-related cases involving 2,778 offenders in 2008, up 16.8 percent and 22.3 percent, respectively, compared with 2007 and an all-time high.

The NPA began tracking marijuana violations in 1956.

Figures showed 62.5 percent of the offenders are in their teens and 20s, indicating the drug’s widespread popularity with young people.

Highly publicized cannabis-related cases involving sumo wrestlers, celebrities and college students have been dominating headlines. On Tuesday, Shigeru Suzuki, guitarist for the legendary ’70s rock band Happy End, was arrested over marijuana possession.

However, a health ministry official said Friday this reflects increased efforts to crack down on cannabis and does not directly indicate the drug is proliferating.

“It’s like when the police launch a campaign against speeding motorists. The effort will naturally translate into a higher number of recognized offenders,” said Naoyuki Yasuda of the ministry’s drug control division.

“But our work has definitely helped spread awareness regarding the drug,” he said.

According to the United Nations World Drug Report 2008, “Cannabis continues to dominate the world’s illicit drug markets in terms of pervasiveness of cultivation, volume of production and number of consumers.”

But contrary to the global trend, stimulants remain the drug of choice in Japan, accounting for roughly 80 percent of all drug-related offenses, the health ministry said.

Koichi Maeda, a marijuana decriminalization activist, said that while recent police efforts are driving up cannabis-related crime statistics, the number of reported crimes involving stimulant drugs has dropped.

“The police operate according to an agenda, and I don’t believe these numbers say anything new about pot-use in Japan,” he said.

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