National / Crime & Legal

Medical marijuana advocate dies of cancer while on trial

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Masamitsu Yamamoto, a man with advanced liver cancer who fought for medical use of marijuana while on trial for drug possession, died of liver failure on Monday. He was 58.

The former chef from Kanagawa Prefecture had crusaded for the government to permit medical use of marijuana, which is banned by the Cannabis Control Law. He was arrested in December on suspicion of marijuana possession and was standing trial at the Tokyo District Court.

During a court hearing on July 12, when he appeared in a wheelchair, he claimed he used cannabis as a medicine of last resort after exhausting all other medical options and failing in his attempts to get access to legal cannabis treatment.

Now that the defendant is deceased, the case will be dropped. Had the trial continued, it would have concluded next Tuesday, when prosecutors would have demanded a prison term and set a sentencing date.

The case’s dismissal means the many questions about the ban raised by the defendant will remain unanswered, said Hideo Nagayoshi of the nonprofit organization Iryo Taima wo Kangaerukai (Japan Medical Marijuana Association), which supported Yamamoto during the trial.

“It must have been extremely vexing for him, especially because he had been feeling assured by the judge’s keen interest in finding out more” about the medical aspects of marijuana, he said.

The court in late June summoned Dr. Kazunori Fukuda, a former division head at the National Cancer Center who now runs a kanpo (Chinese herbal) clinic for cancer patients in Tokyo, as an expert witness. Fukuda testified that the medical effects of cannabis are increasingly recognized overseas, leading to recent moves to legalize medical marijuana in more than 20 American states, as well as in Canada and many European countries.

“No other marijuana trials in Japan’s history had dug this deep into the validity of marijuana as a cancer treatment,” Nagayoshi said. “It’s really regrettable.”

The health ministry remains firmly opposed to medical use of marijuana, even for research. It cites the lack of a clear endorsement from the World Health Organization, as well as research pointing to the risks of substance abuse among pot users, as reasons for the blanket ban.