The use of the so-called dappo doraggu or quasi-legal drugs is spreading. They cause hallucination, intoxication and other euphoria but are not categorized as narcotics or stimulant drugs, whose possession or use is prohibited by law. An increasing number of young people are smoking dappo habu or quasi-legal herbs that are dried and mixed with chemicals causing those effects. They are sold as “herbal incense” to avoid legal action.

The government urgently needs to strengthen regulation of these drugs to protect young people from addiction to them.

One of the phenomena attributable to dappo doraggu is a series of traffic accidents caused by users of such drugs. In one such accident, a 26-year-old man driving a car ran on to the sidewalk in a crowded street in the Minami amusement area in Osaka on the evening of June 1 and injured two women. He reportedly was smoking a quasi-legal herb while driving.

Investigators said that under the influence of the herb, he was not able to drive a car in a safe manner. The Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office on July 24 indicted him, charging him with “dangerous driving causing injury” — a serious charge applicable to a driver who causes a traffic accident.

That was the first case in which a person who used dappo doraggu was indicted on a charge of dangerous driving. Since then, the charge has been applied to several dappo doraggu users who have caused traffic accidents.

There can be no denying that use of quasi-legal narcotic or stimulant drugs not only harms the health of people who use them but also endangers public safety.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, this year about 100 dappo doraggu users were rushed to hospitals between Jan. 1 to May 30 alone. A majority of them (51) were in their 20s. But 13 were teenagers, the youngest being a 14-year-old middle school student. In some cases, users began suffering ill effects after smoking quasi-legal herbs while out in public and ambulances were summoned to the scene. In comparison, only about 10 dappo doraggu users were rushed to hospitals in Tokyo throughout 2011. This shows that the use of quasi-legal drugs is increasing and rapidly becoming a serious problem.

It must be noted that dealers of quasi-legal narcotics and stimulant drugs are not limited to metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka. The health and welfare ministry found that as of the end of March, there were 389 dealers in 29 prefectures — quite an increase from some 210 dealers in 17 prefectures two months before. It is quite likely, however, that the actual number of dealers across Japan is considerably higher than this.

Dealers market the drugs, mainly herbs, at shops, on the Internet and even in vending machines. In many cases, the herbs are named goho habu or legal herbs. A pouch containing three grams usually costs ¥4,000 or ¥5,000. Some dealers sell the drugs in the form of liquid “aroma” and “bath salt” powders.

If the government lists chemicals as “designated drugs” under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, their production, sale and import will be prohibited. A person who sells herbs or other products containing such chemicals at shops or on the Internet can face imprisonment of five years or less or be fined up to ¥5 million.

On Aug. 30, a panel of the health and welfare ministry endorsed the ministry’s plan to list five chemicals whose dangerous nature has been pointed out in Europe as “designated drugs” under the law. This is the first time that chemicals that have not yet been marketed in Japan have been listed as “designated drugs.” The designation is expected to take effect in November. In cooperation with customs authorities, the ministry will be able to stop the inflow of the designated chemicals into Japan at seaports and airports.

On Aug. 31, the government announced a plan to make regulation of dappo doraggu more effective. The process to put chemicals on a black list under the Pharmaceutical Affair Law will be simplified for the sake of speedy designation.

Currently the health and welfare ministry has to buy suspected items such as herbs, incense, aroma and bath salts from dealers, or have them voluntarily submit the items to examine them and list them as “designated drugs.” Under the plan, the ministry can confiscate suspected items for examination.

At present, narcotic agents can only investigate cases involving narcotics and stimulant drugs. The plan is to empower them to handle cases involving dappo doraggu. The government is expected to submit a bill to revise the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law to an extraordinary Diet session this fall, probably in November.

In 2005, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly enacted a by-law to prohibit the production and sale of dappo doraggu. Under the by-law, ingredients of suspected items are examined and problematic chemicals are listed as “governor-designated drugs,” whose production and sale will be banned. The Osaka prefectural assembly plans to enact a similar by-law this coming fall.

But even if the health and welfare ministry lists individual chemicals as “designated drugs” under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, dealers will try to avoid becoming an investigation target by slightly altering the structures of the chemicals in question. The government must adopt a comprehensive system that will enable the government to prohibit the production and sale of chemicals whose structures are similar to those of “designated drugs.”

In carrying out such a comprehensive designation, the government must examine chemicals in question in a scientifically convincing manner. The government also should consider putting dappo doraggu that have strong effects on the list of narcotics and stimulant drugs.

More importantly, serious efforts must be made in schools and through public relations activities to enlighten young people about the dangers posed by quasi-legal narcotics and stimulant drugs.

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