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Following the recent legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in New York and New Jersey, the Foreign Ministry in Japan is urging its citizens visiting or living in those states to continue to stay away from the drug.

The Consulate General of Japan in New York issued a statement last week warning local Japanese residents and tourists that despite the legalization of pot for personal use in the two U.S. states, they can still be penalized for acts such as cultivating and possessing marijuana under Japan’s anti-cannabis law.

"Please do not get your hands on marijuana even if you are in a country or region that legalizes it," the statement said.

This is not the first time the ministry has called on Japanese nationals abroad to heed their home country’s anti-cannabis law.

When Canada lifted a ban on recreational marijuana in 2018, the Consulate-General of Japan in Vancouver issued a similar message on its website urging Japanese people in the nation to be mindful of legal consequences they might face should they engage in acts criminalized by Japan’s Cannabis Control Law, which it said was “applicable overseas.” The law subjects owners and growers of the plant to up to five and seven years of imprisonment, respectively.

But according to a Foreign Ministry official, the odds of Japanese nationals committing acts prohibited by Japanese law in places such as New York and then being arrested by local law enforcement are virtually nil.

“That would be an extremely rare occurrence,” said the official of the Japanese Nationals Overseas Safety Division, declining to be named.

A more conceivable scenario — albeit still unlikely — would be if a drug smuggler for a crime syndicate monitored by Japanese authorities travels to New York and engages in activities that are illegal under Japanese law in the U.S. state. In such cases, it is “theoretically possible” that New York law enforcement, following a request for investigative assistance by its Japanese counterpart, could track down and apprehend the individual based on the Cannabis Control Law, the Foreign Ministry official said.

But otherwise, he said, ordinary Japanese nationals with no links to organized crime are extremely unlikely to be nabbed by local police for legal marijuana use overseas.

“It goes without saying, however, that if they are careless enough to return to Japanese airports with traces of marijuana still left on their clothes, they can be apprehended upon arrival,” he said.

The ministry, however, stands by the position that Japanese nationals in places like New York should stay away from pot as much as possible. Indulging in recreational marijuana, the official said, could lead to them possessing more than the permitted amount of cannabis — up to 3 ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate in New York’s case — and therefore facing punishment in accordance with local laws.

Another important concern the ministry has is that Japanese nationals may become addicted to the plant if they get used to smoking pot overseas, and potentially start abusing it even after they are back in Japan, the official said.

Last week, New York became the 15th state in the U.S. to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing what he hailed as “landmark” legislation that also sought to automatically expunge past marijuana convictions. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy authorized bills in February to legalize the personal, nonmedical use of marijuana for those 21 and older.

In Japan, political momentum for legalizing cannabis, which has traditionally been deeply stigmatized as harmful to people's minds and bodies under the state-led slogan “dame zettai" ("absolutely not"), is essentially nonexistent. Alarmed by a recent spike in the number of young people arrested over cannabis charges, the health ministry recently convened a new panel of experts tasked with discussing possible revisions to the current Cannabis Control Law, including granting authorities more leeway to crack down on pot.

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