Japan Legalizes Medical Cannabis; But Not Going the ‘Rec’ Route
While the rest of the world is moving towards legalizing full adult-use consumption, Tokyo, like almost every other Asian country, does not want to hear about it and is especially clamping down on THC synthetics.
Trevor Bach, US News
This report first appeared in US News on 20 December 2023.
TOKYO – For one very particular niche of Japan’s economy, the first Saturday of December marked a black spot on the calendar: It was the first day of the country’s new ban on products – such as gummies, pre-rolled joints and vape cartridges – that contain hexahydrocannabihexol (HHCH), a semi-synthetic cannabinoid that produces an effect similar to THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana.
“From a business perspective the losses are huge,” said the manager of one CBD shop in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district, speaking through a translation app. “I ended up throwing away a considerable amount of the products I ordered.”
For Japan’s mostly young, growing community of cannabinoid users, the sudden HHCH ban amounted to a personal inconvenience, and for many businesses it meant a major blow. At the Shinjuku shop, HHCH products had been the top seller, purchased by a few dozen Japanese and foreigners daily, the manager said.
But in a time when much of the world is moving toward looser marijuana and recreational drug policies, the new ban also served to highlight Japan’s exceptionalism: HHCH and its numerous semi-synthetic cousins have gained popularity in the country precisely because THC itself remains highly illegal. Following the HHCH prohibition, the health ministry also hinted it might crack down even harder, with a comprehensive ban on similar THC alternatives.
“Products referred to as ‘marijuana gummies’ are dangerous,” Takemi Keizo, the country’s recently appointed health minister, said during a press conference, “so we would like to caution the public not to consume them.” Keizo has also referred to the products as a “serious health and hygiene concern.”
“I would not say that this is particularly surprising,” Maruyama Yasuhiro, a criminology professor and drug policy expert at Tokyo’s Rissho University, wrote in an email about the new ban. “Japan is moving completely against the world trend.”
Japan actually has a history with the cannabis plant that belies the country’s more recent hardline attitudes. According to Junichi Takayasu, one of the country’s top cannabis experts, prehistoric Japanese used hemp fibers – which are derived from the stem of the cannabis plant – to make pottery, clothing and tools. For centuries after, Takayasu told the Japan Times, the crop played an important role in Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion, and was grown by farmers around the country.
Historians have also speculated that, while upper class Japanese of the time drank sake, ordinary Japanese may have even smoked marijuana – the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant.
“Most Japanese people see cannabis as a subculture of Japan but they’re wrong,” Takayasu added. “Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years.”
In the wake of World War II, however, the country’s U.S.-controlled government – in line with contemporaneous American policy – passed a strict national law criminalizing marijuana, and more than seven decades later the drug remains both taboo and highly illegal. One 2019 Japanese government study found that less than 2% of Japanese had tried it at least once, compared to around half of Americans. Criminal penalties here rank among the stiffest in the world, with anyone caught possessing any amount of weed liable for up to seven years in prison.
But a legal loophole has meant that cannabis extracts that don’t contain THC were still allowed. Over the past few years Japan’s nascent CBD industry has swelled – one 2022 report from the Yano Research Institute, a Tokyo-based marketing firm, projected the CBD sector would grow from an industry of about 5 billion yen (about $35 million, as of Dec. 18) in 2019 to an industry of about 65 billion yen (about $455 million) by 2024 – and a market has also emerged for products made from semi-synthetic compounds such as HHCH, which are chemically designed to mimic the effects of THC and come in a range of potencies. “I can’t believe I can get this high in Japan, and I’m not breaking the law,” one 20-something user told Vice last year.
Without an umbrella law against synthetic THC products, however, the government has been left playing a kind of whack-a-mole, banning certain THC-like compounds, including three others earlier this year, as they’ve drawn the ire of authorities.
The HHCH ban, perhaps the country’s highest-profile ban yet, stemmed from a public health scare. In early November, five people in Tokyo who had taken HHCH gummies were hospitalized, and Japanese police said they knew of more than a dozen additional cases this year in Tokyo and Osaka. Government narcotics agents later raided the Osaka factory where the gummies linked to the illnesses were produced, and following an expert panel review, the health ministry announced an all-out ban on HHCH, with offenders subject to up to three years in prison or fines of 3 million yen.
The afternoon after the ban came into effect the new prohibition wasn’t immediately obvious. Inside the cozy Shinjuku shop, Japanese pop and hip-hop songs played in the background, and a team of young workers eagerly assisted the few customers in Japanese and broken English. The store’s walls were filled with a variety of brightly colored packages displayed alongside cheery Christmas decorations: A one milliliter package of vape liquid labeled Gorilla Glue was offered at just under 20,000 yen; Blue Dream, another variety with a lower dose, was on sale at around 14,000 yen.
But those vape cartridges contained HHCP, another semi-synthetic; more products in the store contained still other synthetics, such as THC-O, a compound that’s also lately become popular in the United States.
The store manager, a thoughtful 26-year-old who asked to withhold his name, wasn’t exactly angry over the ministry’s HHCH ban. He said he wasn’t sure how the government should approach semi-synthetic regulation. But he does think the country’s hardline attitude toward cannabis is counterproductive, especially considering its numerous health benefits, and he hopes shops like his can at least help educate the Japanese public.
“In Japan it’s being treated as a dangerous drug,” he said, “and I want to talk about it in a way that helps [people] understand rather than covering it up.”