“It means that marijuana use is technically legal in Japan, even though its possession is punishable by up to five years in prison.”
By Katie Forster and Tomohiro Osaki
With its zero-tolerance laws on cannabis, deep social stigma against drugs, and measures to tighten consumption rules, Japan is no smoker’s paradise.
But you wouldn’t guess seeing Ai Takahashi and her friends twerk, rolling their bodies and lighting up the weed anthem “Young, Wild & Free” at a small club full of Tokyo.
What they are smoking is not illegal marijuana, but a whole that contains cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating component of cannabis that has become fashionable all over the world and is fast catching on in Japan.
“When I was little, I was taught in school and everywhere that marijuana is an absolute no-no, and that’s what I also believed,” Takahashi told AFP.
“But being a big fan of reggae, I had a chance to smoke it when I traveled to places where it’s legal.”
The 33-year-old dancer later became interested in CBD, which is legal in Japan if it is extracted from the seeds of the plant or from the adult stems, but not from other parts such as the leaves.
It is sold in steamers, beverages and sweets in specialty cafes, health shops and even a store at Tokyo’s main airport.
When Takahashi encouraged his mother, who was struggling with depression, to try CBD, it made a big difference, he said.
“That’s when I became convinced of the power of cannabis.”
Japan’s CBD industry was valued at $ 59 million in 2019, up from $ 3 million in 2015, according to Tokyo-based research firm Visiongraph.
And the government is discussing the approval of marijuana-derived drugs, which are already used in many countries to treat conditions such as severe epilepsy.
But despite its incipient interest in the health benefits of the plant, the country is not softening with illegal use, with record-breaking cannabis arrests each year.
“Don’t smoke outside”
It is a curious contrast that has led Norihiko Hayashi, who sells cannabinoid-containing products such as CBD and CBN in sleek black and silver packaging, to advise discretion.
“It’s legal, but we ask customers to enjoy it at home. Don’t smoke it on the street, “said the 37-year-old.
Hayashi believes Japan could legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
But recreational? “It simply came to our notice then. Not in more than 100 years. Maybe I’ll be dead. “
A growing number of countries, from Canada to South Africa and, more recently, Thailand, are taking a more relaxed approach to weeds.
But drug use remains a taboo in Japan, where its fans and businessmen reject captured celebrities using narcotics of any description.
Only 1.4 percent of people say they have tried marijuana, compared to more than 40 percent in France and about half in the United States.
Still, cannabis-related arrests have risen for nearly a decade to a record 5,482 last year, with most criminals in their teens or 20s.
“The internet is full of false information that says cannabis is not harmful or addictive,” Masashi Yamane, head of the health ministry, told AFP.
The ministry warns that intoxicating substances such as THC, which are found in cannabis, could compromise learning ability and muscle control, as well as potentially increase the risk of mental illness.
To address the issue, authorities are looking to close a gap that was originally intended to prevent farmers from being arrested for inhaling psychoactive smoke when growing hemp for items such as rope.
It means marijuana use is technically legal in Japan, although possession is punishable by up to five years in prison.
This amounts to seven years and a possible fine of up to two million yen (795,000 P at the current exchange rate) if it is for sale for profit, with stricter penalties for cultivation or smuggling.
The Cannabis Control Act of Japan was introduced in 1948, during the post-war American occupation.
The United States “saw marijuana as a problem and a threat, even though consumption was really limited and highly stigmatized,” said Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, a history professor at the University of Colorado who studies narcotics in Japan.
So “these draconian drug laws against a drug that wasn’t really a problem were kept in the books,” he told AFP.
Rules have caught stars such as Beatle Paul McCartney, who spent nine days in Japan detained in 1980 after cannabis was found in his luggage.
But the country is not an atypical country in Asia, where harsh sanctions for drug use are the norm, although Thailand now allows users to own and grow cannabis under new complicated guidelines that still ban recreational use.
And while Japan may allow cannabis-based drugs as early as this year, there is little indication that politicians or the public will support greater relaxation of the rules.
“Marijuana is seen as something favored by outlaws,” said Ryudai Nemoto, a 21-year-old employee of a CBD store in Ibaraki, near Tokyo.
“I personally don’t see it that way, knowing that there are people who gravitate to it for medical and health reasons, but that’s not how society in general sees it.”