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CBD takes root in Japan as gov't mulls easing laws for cannabis meds

This photo taken on June 2, 2022, shows CBD products from Hirotsugu Suzuki's business on display at a storefront in Tokyo's Aoyama district. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- From ingestible oils and gummies to skin lotions and makeup, products made from cannabidiol, an extract of the cannabis plant devoid of its psychoactive properties, are rapidly gaining popularity in Japan.

    CBD, as cannabidiol is commonly known, is touted to have numerous health benefits, such as helping treat stress and anxiety and possessing anti-inflammatory properties. CBD items are now readily available in shops in cities around the country, while trials for a British-manufactured CBD drug have also started this year.

    Kazuma Uehara, 31, runs a trendy cafe in western Tokyo that sells CBD products. Named Hammock, several of the woven sling beds hang from the cafe's ceiling, while the timber walls and rustic decor contribute to a relaxed atmosphere.

    Uehara first learned about CBD in early 2020 after it was recommended to him by the supplier who provided the cafe with its namesake hammocks. "I was struggling with insomnia at the time," Uehara said.

    He started eating CBD gummies, and after just a few days Uehara said he found himself sleeping better. "I wasn't able to sleep for more than two or three hours, but then it went up to six or seven."

    Uehara now sells CBD oils and gummies at the cafe, and says some customers come in specifically to buy the products. "We have been asked if it's really legal before," he said. "But other customers are at ease and trust that it's okay as it's just another product being sold at the cafe."

    But while the CBD industry grows, possession of the plant it is derived from remains highly illegal in Japan, stemming from a law enacted in 1948 criminalizing cannabis following the end of World War II and subsequent U.S. occupation.

    In reality, hemp has been used from ancient times for items such as "shimenawa" sacred Japanese rope at shrines, with some farmers still licensed to cultivate the plant.

    Despite recreational cannabis use being far from widespread in Japan, a record 5,783 offenses involving the drug were documented last year. Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Shigeyuki Goto has said the government will "strengthen crackdowns and promote comprehensive measures" against drug abuse.

    On the other hand, a CBD medication called Epidiolex has become the first of its kind to be trialed in the country for patients with rare and severe forms of epilepsy, and amid strong support from patient associations, the health ministry is looking to revise the Cannabis Control Act to make way for the drug.

    Some are also calling for CBD products and potential medications that contain tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, to be made available in Japan. The constituent is responsible for cannabis' psychoactive properties that make people feel "high."

    CBD is allowed in Japan as products derived from the stalks and seeds of cannabis are not criminalized, according to the law, unlike those made from extracts concentrated in other parts of the plant, such as THC.

    "The issue is figuring out up to what amount of THC (in a product) is acceptable," said Tomohiko Mizuno, representative director of the Association of Japan Cannabinoid, which supports revision of the cannabis act, in a recent interview with Kyodo News.

    A former lawmaker, the 66-year-old Mizuno says that Japan "does not allow values other than zero," and thinks that it should set legal standards for THC content from a "rational point of view, as other countries have set."

    Mizuno, a member of Japan's House of Representatives until 2012, first learned about CBD in 2014. Also a qualified dentist, he took interest in CBD's medicinal properties, and the benefits they could have for people in Japan's aging society.

    In addition to campaigning for revision of the cannabis act, the association offers consulting services for new companies learning to navigate the industry and conducts inspections on imported products while providing certifications that they can be traded legally.

    Hirotsugu Suzuki, 49, knows from experience how tricky it can be running such a business, after he founded his company Organy Inc. in 2015 and created the first CBD skincare line in Japan.

    "There were many difficulties like liaising with the health ministry and customs," Suzuki said of starting his business. "There was nowhere to manufacture the products as well. I really started from zero."

    But Suzuki believes CBD has vast potential. He has since expanded to items such as tinctures and even pet treats, and recently collaborated with a flower shop in Tokyo's upscale Aoyama district to put his products on display in its storefront window.

    While Suzuki says the industry is still small, it is definitely growing, with U.S. company Medical Marijuana Inc. saying the Japan division of its CBD-selling subsidiary had its best-ever month of revenue in May.

    According to data provider Statista, Japan is projected to become the second largest CBD market in Asia by 2024, behind only China.

    With the widespread stigma surrounding anything cannabis-related in Japan, a person interviewed by Kyodo News who asked to be only known by their initials Y.I., said CBD had really helped with the anxiety triggered by their bipolar disorder.

    "A lot of people think that cannabis equates to hard drugs. But I think that they would accept it if it were promoted for medical purposes," the person said.

    Mizuki Ishii, 33, agrees. Cannabis, she says, is generally demonized in Japan, although those with experience living overseas tend to think differently. Ishii proclaims to be a regular user of CBD, which she initially bought to help with her premenstrual syndrome.

    Although it did not alleviate the immediate symptoms, Ishii said CBD helped her sleep better and she now shares a tincture bottle with her boyfriend.

    "There are a lot of shops geared toward young people selling CBD recently, mainly toward women and coming in fashionable packaging," she said.

    "Compared to the older generation, I think a lot of young people have a better impression of it."

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