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Japan to criminalize cannabis use, but allow medical marijuana: expert panel report

Dried cannabis and other confiscated objects are seen in the Kudan Common Government Office Building No. 3 in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on June 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Nana Hayashida)

TOKYO -- Marijuana use will be criminalized under revisions to Japan's cannabis control law, a health ministry expert panel stated in a report released on June 11.

    The expert panel, headed by Shonan University of Medical Sciences professor Tsutomo Suzuki, made the decision due to concerns about young people's abuse of the drug. Meanwhile, the panel also concluded that marijuana-derived medications -- currently restricted in Japan -- should be permitted. The expert panel will now begin deliberating specific measures ahead of revisions to the Cannabis Control Act next year.

    While the current law enacted in 1948 prohibits the possession and cultivation of cannabis, there is no criminal punishment for its use, such as smoking it. The introduction of a provision banning using the drug had previously been put off as farmers who cultivate the plant, which is used to make hemp "shimenawa" ropes for Shinto shrines and other uses, can inhale it as they work.

    In February, the health ministry presented test results to the expert panel showing that no cannabinoids had been detected in the farmers' urine. In response, the panel concluded that "there are no reasonable grounds for not imposing penalties on (marijuana) use." The report raised the need to set up a punishment for using the drug, in addition to the current penalties for possession (imprisonment with work for five years or less) and cultivation (imprisonment with work for seven years or less).

    During discussions, three out of the panel's 12 members objected to establishing new criminal penalties, voicing views such as "it goes against the global trend of focusing on supporting recovery," and "it cannot be said that cannabis use is causing social harm, and there are no factual grounds for implementing (criminal penalties)." Other parties, including an addicts' support group, had also called for "support" as opposed to "criminal punishment," and were demanding that the provision be scrapped.

    As a result, the expert panel also mentioned efforts to prevent relapses, including drug addiction treatment, and enhancing support for social rehabilitation.

    In 2020, 5,273 people were involved in cannabis-related cases logged by police and the health ministry's Narcotics Control Department, among other bodies, according to preliminary figures. Case numbers have doubled over the past five years to a new record high, in step with growing internet use. Individuals aged below 30 accounted for 65% of the total.

    Meanwhile, medical use of cannabis-derived drugs, which are currently restricted in the country, would be allowed under the report. The expert panel concluded that in addition to imports, production and sale of medical cannabis should be permitted if authorized by the national government.

    Medical cannabis has been approved in numerous countries, including the United States, and has been used to treat intractable epilepsy and curb cancer pain, but their import and use is currently banned in Japan under the Cannabis Control Act. An increasing number of doctors and others in Japan had been demanding that the usage ban be lifted.

    The expert panel reviewed the current cannabis law, which imposes regulations based on the parts of the cannabis plant, and deemed it appropriate to adjust them to focus restrictions on a substance called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a hallucinogen. The panel called for a review of the law to organize distribution and management structures, including a license system, to enable medical marijuana use.

    (Japanese original by Hidenori Yazawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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