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Warnings against using cannabis as tool for revitalizing rural economies

Cannabis plants grow to about 3 meters tall. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare)

Only farmers with permits to grow cannabis to make hemp "shimenawa" rope used for ritual Shinto purification are legally allowed to do so in Japan. But in response to an increasing number of applications for such permits from rural communities suffering drastic depopulation -- based on the belief that cannabis cultivation could help revitalize local economies -- the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has stepped up its oversight of applications.

A legally approved cannabis grower was found to be smoking marijuana and arrested in October. In November, 37-year-old Toshihiko Ueno, who had received permission to grow cannabis by saying on his application to the Tottori Prefectural Government that he wanted to "revive the tradition of hemp cultivation," was indicted for violating the Cannabis Control Act. He had begun growing marijuana in the Tottori Prefecture town of Chizu after receiving his permit.

The possession and transfer of marijuana is banned under the Cannabis Control Act, but cultivation of the plant is allowed with prefectural permission. The Chizu Municipal Government assisted Ueno in drafting and submitting his application, and Ueno sold hemp coal, seeds and oils that had been processed to have no psychoactive constituents in them. His business seemed to be doing well.

However, people hoping to smoke marijuana gradually descended upon the town. According to the health ministry, Ueno held "tours" in which he would allow visitors to enter his usually fenced-in cannabis farm and help with weeding and harvesting. The tours appeared online as "cannabis therapy." Ueno was arrested on suspicion of being in possession of marijuana that was different from what he had grown himself.

Cannabis plants waiting to be shipped. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare)

In the fall of 2015, the Hokkaido town of Higashikawa decided that it wanted to use cannabis to make building materials, biofuel, and herbal remedies, and along with a civic organization, proposed that the central government designate the town as a special national strategy zone for regional revitalization.

However, with the arrests made in Chizu, Tottori Prefecture, the Higashikawa Municipal Government decided to terminate its discussions with the central government out of concern that it would be misconstrued as trying to grow cannabis for the purpose of smoking it. In the Kansai region, a village resident contacted prefectural authorities asking whether efforts being made by the village government to make hemp a signature product of the village were legal.

On Nov. 25, it emerged that 22 people had migrated to a mountainous community in Nagano Prefecture and were illegally growing marijuana, in a case in which the local municipal government had no involvement.

In November, the health ministry created pamphlets calling on local governments to be careful about using cannabis as a way for revitalizing local economies, and instructed all municipalities to conduct strict assessments when issuing permits. The ministry points out that there have been no examples of cannabis cultivation developing into a large-scale industry, and to be careful of those suggesting that growing marijuana is "profitable" or that "its possibilities are infinite."

Some are wary of such increases in oversight. A hemp promotion association in Ise, Mie Prefecture, comprising Kogakkan University -- attended primarily by those who enter the Shinto priesthood or other related careers -- and other organizations, is seeking a cannabis cultivation permit in order to conduct Shinto rituals using hemp made in Japan. "The recent cases are unwelcome," Hitoshi Nitta, a Kogakkan University professor and board member said in reference to the slew of arrests. "Authorities should clamp down on cannabis in drug form, but it feels as though hemp, as a fiber, has been dragged through the mud."

The cover of a pamphlet created by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare warning against the temptation of using cannabis as a tool for revitalizing local economies. (Mainichi)

Former actress Saya Takagi, 53, who was recently indicted on charges of marijuana possession, had attracted public attention in July when she ran in the House of Councillors election on a platform of making medical marijuana legal. Marijuana is used in some states in the U.S. for medical purposes, such as alleviating pain caused by cancer, but "medical marijuana" as such does not exist in Japan.

Meanwhile, the use of morphine is approved in Japan. However, the amount used is approximately 1/15 that of the amount used in the U.S. "Patients resist the use of narcotics," says Motohiro Matoba, who heads the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center's Palliative Care Department in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. "There are side effects, such as nausea, so families often oppose the use of narcotics, too."

Because of this, the health ministry takes the position that medical narcotics that are currently approved for their safety and effectiveness are sufficient, and that it is too early to engage in discussion of medical marijuana.

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