With its zero-tolerance cannabis laws, deep social stigma against the drug and moves to tighten rules on consumption, Japan is no stoner’s paradise.
However, watching Ai Takahashi and her friends twerking, body-rolling and lighting up to the weed anthem Young, Wild & Free at a tiny, packed club in Tokyo might suggest otherwise.
What they are smoking is not illegal marijuana, but a joint containing cannabidiol (CBD) — a nonintoxicating component of cannabis that has become trendy worldwide and is fast catching on in Japan.
“When I was a child, I was taught at school and everywhere else that marijuana is an absolute no-no, and that’s what I believed too,” Takahashi said. “But being a huge reggae fan, 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 extracted from the plant’s seeds or fully grown stems, but not other parts like the leaves.
It is sold in vape pens, drinks and sweets at specialist cafes, health stores and even a shop in Tokyo’s main airport.
When Takahashi encouraged her mother, who was struggling with depression, to try CBD, it made a big difference, she said.
“That’s when I became convinced of the power of cannabis,” she added.
Japan’s CBD industry in 2019 had an estimated value of US$59 million, up from US$3 million in 2015, Tokyo-based research firm Visiongraph said.
The Japanese government is discussing approving medicines derived from marijuana, which are used in many countries to treat conditions such as severe epilepsy.
However, despite budding interest in the plant’s health benefits, the country is not getting softer on illegal use, with cannabis arrests hitting records each year.
It is a curious contrast that has led Norihiko Hayashi, who sells products containing cannabinoids 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 outside on the street,” the 37-year-old said.
Hayashi thinks Japan could eventually legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
“Never. Not in more than 100 years. Maybe I’ll already be dead,” he said.
A growing number of countries from Canada to South Africa, and most recently Thailand, are taking a more relaxed approach to weed.
However, drug use remains taboo in Japan, where celebrities caught using narcotics of any description are shunned by their fans and employers.
Only about 1.4 percent of Japanese say they have tried marijuana, compared with more than 40 percent in France and about half in the US.
Even so, cannabis-related arrests have been rising for nearly a decade to a record 5,482 last year, with most offenders in their teens or 20s.
“The Internet is awash with false information saying cannabis isn’t harmful or addictive,” Japanese Ministry of Health official Masashi Yamane said.
The ministry warns that intoxicating substances — such as tetrahydrocannabinol, which is found in cannabis — could compromise learning ability and muscle control, as well as potentially increase the risk of mental illness.
To tackle the issue, authorities are looking into closing a loophole originally meant to stop farmers from being arrested for inhaling psychoactive smoke when growing hemp for items such as rope.
It means consumption of marijuana is technically legal in Japan, although possession is punishable by up to five years in jail.
This rises to seven years and a possible fine of up to ￥2 million (US$14,835) if it is to sell for profit, with stricter sentences for growing or smuggling.
Japan’s Cannabis Control Act was introduced in 1948, during the post-World War II US occupation.
Washington “saw marijuana as a problem and a threat, even though consumption was really limited and very much stigmatized,” said Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, a history professor at the University of Colorado who studies narcotics in Japan.
“These draconian drug laws against a drug that wasn’t really a problem remained on the books,” she said.
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