Japan prides itself on having a low tolerance for guns and drugs, but a tiny political party has become the first to adopt an election pledge of scrapping the research ban on medical use of marijuana.
Proponents say such use could ease cancer-related pain, prevent dementia and cut soaring medical costs. But the government says its effectiveness has not been proved and worries about the social harm that weaker controls could bring.
Owning and growing marijuana remains strictly against the law here despite the trend in other advanced countries, such as Canada and the United States, to free up medical use.
“Faced with this sharp gap between Japan and the rest of the world, the public are at a loss which to believe,” said Saya Takagi of Shinto Kaikaku (New Renaissance Party), founded by a former member of the Liberal Democratic Party.
“We are proposing lifting the ban on research to see what the truth is,” said Takagi, who is running in Sunday’s Upper House election. “I wish for the earliest possible start of research and the introduction of medical marijuana.”
The idea of legalizing medical use finds backers among Japan’s growing ranks of senior citizens, who make up just over a quarter of the population of 127 million.
“Nothing would be better for patients, if it is put to good use,” said Kimiko Yajima, a 78-year-old cancer patient, while shopping in central Tokyo. “It would be great if pain were eased, even temporarily.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, who has a reputation for bucking conservative trends, has also spoken in favor of the idea.
“I believe it can be greatly utilized for medical purposes,” the weekly magazine Spa quoted her as saying in December. Her aides could not immediately comment on the article, however.
Akie Abe also said she had once considered becoming a hemp farmer. These days, that requires a special permit, in contrast to the plant’s former widespread use in fabric and Imperial ceremonies.
The government says legalizing marijuana for medical use is premature, without scientific proof.
“The World Health Organization has not acknowledged there are scientific grounds,” said a health ministry official who declined to be identified commenting on a sensitive topic. “Given that marijuana is already abused, we need to be truly careful.”
Some medical experts counter that it should be possible to explore medical use under appropriate controls.
“We are not saying marijuana should be freed from all restrictions,” said Minoru Arakaki, head of a new academic institution on medical marijuana. “All we are saying is, let’s conduct research to see what harm and benefit it can bring, and let’s use it if it turns out to be useful.”