National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Little buzz in Japan over Canada’s move to legalize marijuana

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Japan’s media coverage of Canada’s Oct. 17 announcement that possession and use of marijuana would be legalized — subject to certain restrictions — has been mostly brief and low-key.

To access the best source about marijuana in Japanese, I suggest you buy a subscription to the Japan Medical Abstracts Society, which operates Ichushi Web. Enter marifana (marijuana) into the search window and you’ll get 562 hits for research studies and academic papers in which the wacky weed figures.

To avoid the outlay, I managed to cajole a professor at the Kobe University School of Medicine to summarize what he found in the database.

“In the past, taimasō (hemp) was openly cultivated in Japan,” replies Dr. Naohiro Hohashi. “Its fibers were utilized in the making of clothing, for fishing implements, and even for producing the shimenawa (sacred ropes) that are fastened to the gates of Shinto shrines and so on. Its seeds were added to shichimi (a popular food seasoning) and used for bird feed.

“With the implementation of a law prohibiting its use in 1946, however, possession of cannabis sativa, as well as its sale, cultivation and so on became illegal.”

Hohashi says the tone of the published medical studies concerning marijuana is overwhelmingly negative, maintaining that users may be susceptible to memory loss and hallucinations. Another concern, he adds, is the ease with which users become listless or emotionally detached, which are characteristic symptoms of the amotivational syndrome.

“At present,” he says, “anyone who desires to cultivate marijuana (taima) in Japan must obtain the permission of the governor of the relevant prefecture. Presently some 40 individuals (mostly farmers) have been permitted to cultivate the plant, and another 300 or so, including law enforcement officials, have been authorized to use it for research. As the law currently stands, utilization of marijuana-based products for medical use is illegal.”

While research into cannabinoid, a biologically active substance present in marijuana, has been ongoing, Japan is the only country among G10 members with an outright ban on use of marijuana for medical purposes.

“Research has been applied to such diseases as multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries, diseases of the spine, cancer, AIDS, severe arthritis, epilepsy, among others,” Hohashi says. “It is actually being prescribed to patients. In Japan, however, a fixed view persists that ‘marijuana is bad.’ For such a view to change, evidence of its efficacy, and adverse reactions, from medical and pharmacological perspectives will be needed.”

In February 2007, Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceuticals announced it had licensed the cannabinoid drug Sativex from GW Pharmaceuticals to conduct research, which is done in the United States.

In October 2015, Otsuka announced that the results of its latest trials, on treatment of pain in patients with advanced cancer, had been inconclusive.

Friday (Nov. 9) was something less than sanguine, reporting on Canada’s move with the headline “Addicts tripping out wander the streets aimlessly: A terrifying future awaits with the opening of marijuana sales in Canada.”

At the top of the page was a photo of a long queue of customers outside a branch of Quebec Cannabis Society in Montreal.

“Marijuana can impair memory and learning functions and its prolonged abuse may affect the brain, leading to serious health issues,” Dr. Masahiko Funada, director of the Department of Drug Dependence Research at the National Institute of Mental Health, told the magazine, pointing out that unlike many other types of drugs, marijuana can be cultivated without technical knowhow or special equipment.

“We’re concerned that legalization in Canada may lead to more Japanese taking interest in it, and after using it in Canada more of them will become habitual users and bring it back to Japan,” he said.

Former health ministry official Ryoji Takahama told Friday that prosecutions for marijuana possession in Japan, at about 3,000 per year, have been increasing since 2014. “Interceptions by customs at ports of entry are probably just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Usage in Japan is definitely on the increase.”

Takahama attributes the recent spread to wider availability of seeds, which he says are easier to conceal yet enable “large-scale propagation.”

“There are a lot of transactions going on with people who sell the seeds via the internet,” he added. “At present, investigations have been lagging.”

The News Scramble column in Shukan Jitsuwa (Nov. 8) quoted a Japanese journalist based in the U.S., who said: “In Japan, marijuana is treated as a ‘narcotic drug’ together with amphetamines, heroin, cocaine and so on, but in North America it is understood to be different. In Canada there are many who say they have never smoked tobacco but have smoked marijuana, and it’s said to be easier for minors to obtain than alcohol or cigarettes.”

In a survey of people aged 15 and above taken earlier this year in Canada, 14 percent said they “had used marijuana within the past three months” and, of these, 56 percent said they “smoked it on a daily or weekly basis.”

The basis for Canada’s decision to legalize pot, Shukan Jitsuwa explains, is to cut off the profits being made by criminal organizations by putting distribution in the hands of the state. The move has led the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver to issue a warning to the effect that possession or purchase of marijuana will be treated as a criminal offense, and that the law can affect Japanese not only at home, but in some cases “be applied to those outside the country.”

Shukan Jitsuwa concludes: “In countries where it’s legal, chocolates and other types of candy containing marijuana are being sold. Readers should exercise caution not to mistakenly purchase and carry them back to Japan.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.