The government wants to revise Japan’s Cannabis Control Law. Presently, growing or possessing marijuana is against the law, but because of a perceived increase in use of the drug among young people, the health ministry wants to make smoking and ingesting marijuana crimes, too. This may sound like splitting hairs — How can you smoke weed without having it? — but the proposal indicates the authorities’ strong resistance to trends in other countries to decriminalize and even commercialize the medicinal and recreational consumption of pot.
The official position is that marijuana is dangerous, despite the fact that little research has been carried out in Japan as to just how dangerous it is. This is also the case in the United States, where private use of marijuana has been gradually legalized at a local level. As pointed out in the 2018 documentary, “Weed the People,” now streaming on Netflix, marijuana is categorized as a schedule 1 drug at federal level, meaning it has no medical applications. It also means that no public research can be carried out on marijuana, even though it has been used as a remedy for thousands of years. Now, marijuana is recognized by many Western doctors as an effective treatment for various conditions, including cancer.
The documentary asserts that as long as marijuana is classified in such a way, its possible beneficial effects can never be empirically proven. As one expert says, 90% of the private studies on marijuana are carried out for the express purpose of promoting its harmful effects, partly because pharmaceutical companies could lose business if marijuana is normalized.
The situation in Japan is also aligned with making sure marijuana has a bad image. The Cannabis Control Law was imposed on Japan by the American military authorities after World War II, but harm was never the issue. Legality is, and the government, believing that usage is going up, wants stronger laws to suppress it and so needs to reinforce the narrative that marijuana is harmful, though all it has is anecdotal evidence to that effect. Even the panel assembled by the health ministry to discuss the revision, and which sounds predisposed to approving it, has said that it needs better data to make the case that the drug is bad for you. In an interview with BuzzFeed Japan, one of the panel members, addiction expert Toshihiko Matsumoto, theorized that after use of so-called kiken (dangerous) drugs declined following tougher regulations several years ago, the health ministry division in charge of illegal drugs has had less work to do, and so is lobbying for tougher marijuana laws in order to get its budget allocation back.
Vital to these purposes is the media, which characterizes marijuana as being highly addictive and a “gateway” to other drugs. There has been little resistance to this tendency, which is where Michiko Kameishi comes in. Kameishi is an Osaka lawyer who has become a vocal advocate for greater transparency surrounding marijuana’s status in Japan.
Kameishi has made a name for herself as a “defiant” (hankotsu) attorney. Her first high-profile case was defending a nightclub in Osaka cited by the police for allowing dancing without a permit. Had the club obtained such a permit, they would not have been able to operate after midnight, and most such clubs make their money in the wee hours. Kameishi’s defense not only cleared the operator, but also led to a change in the decades-old law. Her next big case was defending a man arrested by the Osaka Prefectural Police for theft. The police had attached a GPS device to the suspect’s car without a warrant, which Kameishi pointed out was illegal. Usually, such procedural improprieties don’t sway judges, but the Supreme Court eventually agreed with Kameishi.
But it was her representation of a tattoo artist fined for plying his trade without a medical license that received the most attention. Kameishi’s defense presented Japanese tattoos as a cultural artifact. If the medical license protocol was enforced, an entire art form unique to Japan would disappear. She won.
What sets Kameishi apart from her peers is not just the kind of cases she takes, but her methodology. She doesn’t charge clients whose cases may have a larger social significance, and has learned how to use crowdfunding to cover the often prohibitive cost of going to trial. She appeals to common sense and strict adherence to constitutional principles. In the tattoo defense, she understood that the general public looks askance at tattoos, so she focused on the cultural aspect. On the website Bunshun Online last year, she explained how three particularly brutal murder cases did not warrant the death penalty, using everyday language to explain how extenuating circumstances must be considered in such cases.
Kameishi’s marijuana-related work is different in that she is not proceeding within the framework of a court case. Basically, she is carrying out a public relations offensive. As she explained last year during a discussion with Yuji Masataka of the medical marijuana support group Green Zone Japan, she started questioning Japan’s marijuana laws when she realized that people accused of using stimulant drugs sometimes carried out secondary crimes such as assault and arson, while those accused of using marijuana typically didn’t. Previously, she never thought the law was a problem. This reflexive aspect hit home when she ran for the Upper House and tried to hold a public discussion about marijuana laws. Her campaign staff talked her out of it because it would be too “risky.” She lost anyway, thus “freeing” her to talk about the issue openly.
For what it’s worth, Kameishi gets attention from mainstream media outlets for reasons that don’t always have something to do with her accomplishments. She has been described as being “too beautiful” for a lawyer, a sexist qualifier that nevertheless has brought her exposure that she can use to talk about a topic that is “taboo” in Japan. As she told Masataka, conveying correct information about marijuana is important, but it ultimately depends on “who does it and how they do it.”
See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.
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