In early February, the anti-narcotic unit of the Tokyo police was in the limelight after arresting Kazuhiro Kiyohara, a former star professional baseball player, on suspicion of unlawfully possessing stimulant drugs. But the case is just a tip of the iceberg as illegal drugs keep permeating through Japanese society with no end in sight.

A former anti-drug police officer has pointed to a lack of ability on the part of the authorities charged with controlling narcotics such as the police and the health ministry, saying, “Why did it take so long to arrest a guy like Kiyohara who had been heavily dependent on drugs?”

Indeed, it was in March 2014 that the weekly Shukan Bunshun magazine reported that Kiyohara, who had long been rumored to be using stimulant drugs since the 1990s, was rushed to a hospital after suffering drug poisoning.

There are two big hurdles that the police must clear before they can arrest a suspect in a stimulant drug case. They must be able to prove “possession” of a drug by arresting a suspect on the spot and they must be able to prove “use” of the drug by confirming that the suspect inhaled or injected the drug.

Urinalysis, the results of which are indispensable for indictment, can detect usage only if the drug was taken within the previous two weeks. But diuretics can be taken to flush drug ingredients out of the body sooner.

Moreover, there is a manpower shortage. The team that kept Kiyohara under surveillance and eventually arrested him consisted of only five officers — far short of the 20 officers that most insiders agree would be needed in such a case.

According to the National Police Agency, the number of people investigated in connection with the possession or use of narcotics peaked at 14,500 in 2010 and has since declined to an annual average of about 13,000. In addition, some 1,000 cases are annually unearthed by the health ministry and the Japan Coast Guard.

But the volume of drugs entering the country has been rising, indicating that the use of narcotics is growing faster than the annual number of criminal cases may suggest. The amount of drugs confiscated by the police increased from 305 kg in 2010 to 338 kg in 2011 and 348 kg in 2012. The number shot up to over 800 kg in 2013 when there was a raid on a large smuggling ring and the figure for 2014 remained high at 487 kg.

The aforementioned anti-drug police officer says a general consensus within the police organization is that what has been confiscated represents only 5 percent of the total amount. This would mean that more than 9 tons of narcotics were smuggled into Japan in 2014.

This number appears to be substantiated by an estimate based on a study conducted by the National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry that up to 10 tons of narcotics or more are consumed in Japan annually. If the end-user price is ¥40,000 per 0.2 grams as has been reported in the media, the total sum of money spent on narcotics in Japan comes to about ¥180 billion.

There is a limit to what the police, the customs, the coast guard and the health ministry’s anti-narcotic officers can do to halt the smuggling of drugs into the country. In the past, China and North Korea used to be the main suppliers of illicit drugs to Japan. But nowadays, smuggling from Mexico is rapidly increasing. Smugglers strive to outwit Japan’s law enforcement agencies and only a small portion of illegal drugs is confiscated.

Under the Narcotics and Psychoactive Drug Control Law, anti-drug officers belonging to the health ministry’s regional bureaus of health and welfare are allowed to purchase illegal drugs as part of their sting operations. But police officers cannot resort to such tactics under the Stimulants Control Law .

In addition, police officers might overstep their legal authority. In one case, a Tokyo police officer deliberately placed narcotics in the bag of a passer-by and then questioned him over the bag’s content. The officer was given a suspended sentence as punishment.

The health ministry has been gradually increasing the number of anti-narcotic officers who have the same authority as police officers on matters related to controlling drugs. In January 2015, the number of officers specializing in the control of kiken draggu (dangerous drugs) grew by 26, with the total number of anti-drug officers increasing to 296. But as they have other duties to perform such as inspecting hospitals handling narcotics, that number is said to be hardly enough to fight the spread of narcotics.

One problem facing all three anti-drug agencies — the police, the health ministry and the Japan Coast Guard — is that the skills and information accumulated by veteran officers are not being adequately handed down to younger colleagues. Much greater power and authority must be given to the police and anti-narcotics officers of the health ministry, says the aforementioned police officer.

Another weapon that anti-drug officers have is the so-called eavesdropping law that went into effect in 2000. It permits them to intercept communications while investigating crimes related to narcotics, firearms and organized murders.

The Justice Ministry announced in February that the police last year intercepted 14,528 calls, leading to the arrest of 101 suspects — both the second highest numbers on record. A police insider complains, however, that the hurdles are so high for getting court permission to wiretap that it was allowed in only nine narcotics-related cases — a mere 0.1 percent of the total number of such cases.

The eavesdropping law provides that investigators abusing their power will be given a prison term of up to three years or a fine not exceeding ¥1 million. By making such punishments more strict, it may be possible to lower the hurdles for allowing wiretapping. The crux of the issue is to attain a balance between the risk of violation of privacy and the social merit of going after drug traders. A prerequisite to attaining such a balance is to train and expand the personnel engaged in fighting narcotics.

Undoubtedly, gangster syndicates are playing major roles in selling illegal drugs in Japan. It follows, therefore, that the best way to crush the narcotics supply is to cut off the income sources of these syndicates.

The police appear to be blowing their own horn by claiming that the arrest of Kiyohara sends an effective warning to society. It should be kept in mind that the price of narcotics, which was reported to be ¥40,000 per 0.2 grams at the time of his arrest, has gone down considerably since then, indicating that the flow of drugs into the country is growing. This means that Japan is becoming a paradise for drug dealers.

Nabbing suspects in conspicuous cases every now and then cannot stem the growth of narcotics-related crimes. The crucial question is whether the law enforcement authorities will be able to attack the problem at its roots by going after the drug-dealing gangster syndicates.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes.

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