Alarmed by a recent spike in the number of youngsters abusing marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, Japan’s health ministry is looking to stiffen what is already one of the world’s most draconian anti-cannabis laws.
On Wednesday, the ministry convened a new panel of experts tasked with discussing possible revision to the Cannabis Control Law, under which owners and growers of the illicit plant currently face up to five and seven years of imprisonment, respectively.
Here we take a closer look at the expert panel, the law and how cannabis has been used, or not, in Japan.
How is marijuana generally perceived in Japan?
While moves have been afoot in some parts of the world to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, such momentum is almost non-existent in Japan, where the plant — along with other illegal drugs — has long been deeply stigmatized under the much-hyped government slogan “dame zettai” (“absolutely not”).
The strident crusade against cannabis by authorities has apparently borne fruit: today, the world’s third-largest economy has by far the lowest prevalence of marijuana use among its industrialized Group of Seven peers.
The proportion of the population that has smoked pot at least once in their lifetime stood at a tiny 1.8% in Japan in 2019, according to the health ministry, compared with 41.5% of Canada in 2012, 44.2% of the U.S. in 2014 and 23.1% of Germany in 2012.
What is the focus of the panel?
Even though Japan has one of the world’s lowest rates of marijuana abuse, there has been a worrying upward trend in recent years, which has prompted authorities to establish the panel.
The number of those apprehended for violating the Cannabis Control Law has been increasing steeply in recent years, hitting a record 4,570 in 2019 — up 21.5% from the previous year — in what marked the sixth straight year of year-on-year increases, according to a crime report by the Justice Ministry.
Of those arrested, people under age 30 numbered a record 2,622, accounting for nearly 60% of the total.
Why are more young people drawn to cannabis?
The health ministry attributes the growing youth abuse of marijuana to what it calls the misguided, but widespread, narrative on the internet that cannabis is “less harmful and addictive” than the likes of cigarettes and alcohol.
A sense of complacency among the young was underscored by a survey conducted in 2018 by the National Police Agency on 716 cannabis law violators. The poll showed 76.3% of teens said they had used the drug either “out of curiosity” or “just for the fun of it.” It also found 76.1% of respondents had “little” or “no” awareness of how detrimental marijuana can be to their health.
Another possible reason why more youngsters are smoking pot is the dwindling availability of quasi-legal designer drugs dubbed “kiken (dangerous) drugs.”
Having once emerged as a popular alternative for marijuana, those legal highs have since become the target of an ever-intensifying police crackdown, which, in turn, is believed to have steered many young people back toward marijuana, the ministry says.
How can the panel address this problem?
The panel will discuss possible revisions to the current anti-cannabis law, with an emphasis on whether the act of smoking weed should be criminalized. It is expected to compile a report by the end of July.
The law currently prohibits, among other things, the import, export, cultivation and possession of parts of the cannabis plant where an intoxicating chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is concentrated, including resin, leaves and buds.
The law, however, doesn’t criminalize the actual ingestion of cannabis. Authorities think this has instilled in the public, especially among youths, the confidence that they can smoke pot with impunity, in part encouraging their abuse.
Why is there no punishment for smoking marijuana already?
The reason has to do with Japan’s peculiar history with cannabis.
From ancient times, the plant had been grown for its fibers to be woven into clothes, fishing equipment and sacred ropes known as shimenawa used in Shinto shrines for purification.
It wasn’t until after the end of World War II, during the Allied Occupation, that the U.S. General Headquarters (GHQ) ordered an all-out ban on the cultivation of cannabis, including hemp, as part of a broader campaign against narcotics.
In 1948, however, the Japanese government enacted the Cannabis Control Law to pave the way for the licensed cultivation of cannabis, to keep the hemp industry — home to close to 25,000 growers back then — from going extinct.
Lore has it that in enacting the law, legislators were concerned about the possibility of farmers mistakenly inhaling psychoactive substances of the crop during the cultivation process, and it was to avert their arrest that the personal consumption of marijuana wasn’t criminalized, or so the popular theory goes.
Today, hemp farmers are strictly controlled and number nowhere near as many as before, totaling just 37 across the nation in 2016, according to health ministry figures.
How harmful is marijuana?
This is one of the questions that the panel spent most time grappling with at its first session Wednesday, which media could observe on condition that speakers were kept anonymous.
It is often said that marijuana serves as a “gateway” to other, more pernicious drugs, such as kakuseizai (stimulants). The health ministry, too, warns on its website that THC diminishes one’s memory functions.
But beyond that, with the nation dealing with far fewer marijuana abusers than some other countries, there is little scientific evidence at home of how detrimental or addictive marijuana can truly be, members of the panel pointed out.
One psychiatrist in attendance said he was aware of only a few domestic cases in which marijuana use alone triggered mental illness, while a representative from a rehabilitation center for drug addicts similarly noted that “close to zero” patients ever came knocking on his door due purely to their addiction to marijuana.
“If we want to rectify the rampant abuse of marijuana among young people, this panel, going forward, needs to be able to present a more convincing, data-based argument to society about how harmful and terrifying marijuana is,” another member pointed out.
What other topics will the panel discuss?
Another possible area of focus for the panel is whether to relax a ban on medical marijuana.
Currently, the anti-cannabis law prohibits both doctors and patients from using medications manufactured from marijuana.
But given the recent advent overseas of marijuana-derived drugs such as Epidiolex — approved in 2018 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of epileptic seizures but still banned in Japan — the health ministry recognizes the need to “properly respond” to such cutting-edge medical technologies, an official said during Wednesday’s meeting.
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