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Surge in drug use among Japanese youths amid easy online access

A photo of a National Police Agency pamphlet on preventing drug abuse shows an image of MDMA pills.

TOKYO -- An increasing number of people have been investigated in Japan for possessing cannabis or MDMA, considered "gateway drugs" to other illegal substances, prompting experts to urge for strengthened measures targeting younger generations.

    Japanese actress Erika Sawajiri, 33, who was recently arrested for allegedly possessing the synthetic drug MDMA, apparently told the police she had casually used drugs for over 10 years.

    About 70% of crimes related to illegal drugs in Japan have to do with stimulants, but there is a slight downward trend in the number of people investigated by police and others in such cases. Authorities investigated 10,030 people in 2018, a decrease of over 1,000 compared to 2013.

    Meanwhile, an upward trend is dominant among those in possession of cannabis and MDMA, although at one time, the numbers had reduced. Last year, authorities investigated 3,762 people for possessing cannabis and 57 people for carrying MDMA, both an over twofold increase compared to 2013.

    Data on the age of those who were investigated in cannabis-related crimes suggests a surge in the number of young people, in their 20s or younger, getting involved in such crimes. Last year, 53% of those probed were aged below 30.

    Coded messages like, "Vegetables sold using hand push, by the gram or bulk orders! They will be delivered at night," "We have plenty of tasty ganja," "Is there anyone who can sell using hand push in this area? #vegetables," and, "Batsu is in stock," are regularly posted on the internet.

    According to sources concerned, such posts use drug-related slang terms to engage people in trafficking. Vegetables and ganja refer to cannabis, while hand push means to hand over. Batsu refers to MDMA, known as ecstasy and the shortened "X," as the Japanese people call the symbol X batsu.

    An analysis of documents on at least 100 youths under the age of 20 investigated by the Metropolitan Police Department's juvenile delinquency division between January 2018 and June 2019 on violating the Cannabis Control Act, suggests easy access to illegal drugs via the internet as an underlying reason for the dramatic increase in youngsters using drugs. According to the data, roughly 60% of youths who bought illegal substances from dealers or friends they met on the internet told investigators that "it was easy" to obtain illegal drugs.

    Though most of them knew using such drugs was illegal, about half of them thought it would be "harmless" or "rather healthy." Loads of online posts suggesting that illegal drugs are harmless or are less harmless compared to tobacco presumably had affected their perception of such drugs. One of the youths even said they "became interested" in drugs after hearing their favorite foreign artist sing about getting high using cannabis.

    Approximately 80% of the juveniles had a good family relationship and around 40% were first offenders with no record of delinquency.

    Investigative sources say it is common for drug dealers to recommend using MDMA once a person uses cannabis. Pills come in all sort of colors and often have logos, such as a heart shape, stamped on them. One pill is typically sold for some 4,000 yen in Japan.

    A man who introduced himself as a former drug dealer told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There's no need to cook or inject them, and it wouldn't look suspicious even if you took them at a club."

    One senior investigator stated, "Though there are cases resulting in death, so many young people use (illegal drugs) as something fashionable."

    Some have pointed out the suspicion that MDMA, like stimulants and other substances, are smuggled into Japan. A senior police officer explained, "Drug trafficking is a money source for gangs. It is essential to intensify crackdowns, such as strengthening internet surveillance."

    (Japanese original by Yuki Yamamoto and Kazuki Sakuma, City News Department)


    Below is a list of websites offering contact information (in Japanese) on facilities across the country supporting drug addicts:

    A list of mental health and welfare centers:

    Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC):

    Nonprofit organization Yakkaren:

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