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Until recently, Japan has not needed much of a drug policy, but recent headlines about “university pot busts” indicate one is overdue. Outside of Japan, marijuana arrests no longer even get space in newspapers, since access and use of marijuana is an everyday reality, unhealthy and questionable as it may be. Japan would do well to learn from the missteps in enforcement and legal policy of other countries before the problem spreads here.

Japan has been traditionally intolerant of illegal drug use, yet the recent arrests of students at good universities, along with well-known sports people, make better propaganda than effective policy. The example of the U.S. where prisons in the 1990s became swamped with people convicted of drug misdemeanors is instructive. As “educational” as such well-publicized arrests may be, Japan surely does not want its prisons full of students and sports stars caught with a few marijuana seeds or a resin-filled pipe.

There are no shortcuts to successfully interdicting the supply of drugs in any country, and Japan can no longer pretend to be an exception. Many countries, however, have found reasonable and effective policies. Most of those policies tried to keep the lowest level of drug offender out of prison while focusing on the larger organizations and supply routes that distribute illegal substances. However, young people in Japan tempted to use drugs should remember that not only are their actions illegal, but their party thrills support criminal organizations and other suppliers and an illicit shadow economy.

Illegal marijuana use by students at universities may be taken as a strange sign of internationalization. There will be no way to restrict Japanese students from reading about marijuana on the Internet and becoming curious. Many students encounter marijuana when traveling or studying abroad. Still, the use of marijuana inside a country with strict intolerance to drug use is a sign of incredibly bad judgment, at best, and remains a crime with real consequences.

These students’ lives, and those of their families, could be permanently damaged. Getting kicked out of university and having trouble finding future employment is harsh punishment. After the headlines die down, the government will need a broad policy that establishes fair punishments together with effectual reduction of supply and better education about drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, the two most commonly abused drugs.

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