As concerns mount over the growing use of quasi-legal herbs as narcotics, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has started monitoring Internet sales of the herbal mixture — but to limited effect as vendors take great pains to stay within the law.

The health ministry began the monitoring in June and has found a few dozen websites selling the herbs with phrases that may violate the law, official Shigeki Iso told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

Called “dappo herb,” such herbal mixtures are laced with unregulated substances whose chemical components differ only slightly from those found in illegal cannabis or stimulants.

A few sites with problematic descriptive phraseology were confirmed to be violating the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, Iso said.

Sellers of the unregulated herbal mixtures are not allowed to suggest what kind of effects their products will have if ingested, but it is believed users in many cases buy them to smoke to obtain a euphoric high.

If the sellers merely describe their products as “incense” or “aroma” with no mention of possible ingestive effects, the ministry can’t restrict their sales, Iso said.

The ministry has asked municipalities where sellers are operating to tell the vendors to delete any mention of their products’ ingestive effects from their sites, he said, adding the ministry is currently scrutinizing the remaining websites.

How effective the new measure will be is questionable.

“In reality, we haven’t spotted” Internet shops that sell the quasi-legal herbs with phrases that may violate the law, said Akira Sano, an official in the pharmaceutical affairs section of the Kanagawa Prefectural Government.

Meanwhile the prefecture is requesting that vendors stop selling the quasi-legal herbs because of the health risks they pose, Sano said.

Kanagawa also has been buying some of the herbs to check if they contain illegal drugs.

Unregulated herbal mixtures have been directly marketed since around 2009. The health ministry has been trying to stop dealers from selling the mixtures by designating them as unregulated, illegal drugs.

But it has been a game of cat-and-mouse, because if the ministry identifies an illegal chemical substance contained in an herbal mixture, sellers merely alter the ingredients slightly to stay in business.

As of March, there were 389 dealers in 29 prefectures selling the herbal mixtures, according to the health ministry.

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