TOKYO: With his zero-tolerance cannabis lawsdeep social stigma on the drug and steps to tighten up its consumption rules, Japan is not a stoner’s paradise.
But you wouldn’t guess seeing Ai Takahashi and her friends twerking, body-rolling and lighting up the weed song “Young, Wild & Free” in a small, packed club in Tokyo.
What they smoke is not illegal marijuanabut a joint with cannabidiol (CBD) — a non-intoxicating component of hemp that has become trendy worldwide and is quickly catching on in Japan.
“When I was a kid, I was taught in school and everywhere else that marijuana is absolutely forbidden, and I believed it,” Takahashi told AFP.
“But because I’m a big reggae fan, I got the 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 obtained from the seeds or mature stems of the plant, but not from other parts such as the leaves.
It is sold in vapes, drinks and candies in specialty cafes, health food stores and even a shop in Tokyo’s main airport.
When Takahashi encouraged her mother, who struggled with depression, to try CBD, it made a big difference, she said.
“That’s when I became convinced of the power of cannabis.”
Japanese CBD Industry was worth an estimated $59 million in 2019, up from $3 million in 2015, says Tokyo-based research firm Visiongraph.
And the government is discussing the approval of drugs derived from marijuana, which are already being used in many countries to treat conditions such as severe epilepsy.
But despite its burgeoning interest in the plant’s health benefits, the country is not lenient on illegal use, with cannabis arrests breaking records every year.
It’s a curious contrast that has led Norihiko Hayashi, who sells products containing cannabinoids like CBD and CBN 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.
But recreational? ‘Never. Not in over 100 years. Maybe I’ll be dead by then.’
A growing number of countries, from Canada to South Africa and most recently Thailand, are adopting a more relaxed approach to cannabis.
But drug use remains taboo in Japan, where celebrities caught using narcotics of any kind are shunned by their fans and employers.
Only 1.4 percent of people say they have tried marijuana, compared with more than 40 percent in France and about half in the United States.
Still, cannabis-related arrests have risen for nearly a decade to a record 5,482 last year, with most offenders in their teens or twenties.
“The internet is full of false information that says cannabis is not harmful or addictive,” Health Ministry official Masashi Yamane told AFP.
The ministry warns that intoxicants such as THC, which are found in cannabis, can compromise learning and muscle control and potentially increase the risk of mental illness.
To address the issue, authorities are investigating closing a loophole originally intended to prevent farmers from being arrested for inhaling psychoactive smoke while growing hemp for items such as rope.
It means that marijuana consumption is technically legal in Japan, although possession is punishable by up to five years in prison.
This goes up to seven years and a possible fine of up to two million yen ($15,000) if sold for a profit, with tougher penalties for cultivating or smuggling.
Japanese Cannabis Control Act was introduced in 1948, during the post-war American occupation.
The United States “saw marijuana as a problem and a threat, even though its consumption was really limited and highly stigmatized,” said Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, a history professor at the University of Colorado who studies narcotics in Japan.
So “these draconian drug laws against a drug that wasn’t much of a problem were left on the books,” she told AFP.
The rules have ensnared stars, including Beatle Paul McCartney, who spent nine days in Japan in 1980 after cannabis was found in his luggage.
But the country is not an outlier in Asia, where harsh penalties for drug use are the norm, although Thailand now allows users to possess and grow cannabis under complex new guidelines that still prohibit recreational use.
And while Japan could allow cannabis-derived drugs as early as this year, there’s little sign of politicians or the public supporting further relaxation of the rules.
“Marijuana is seen as something preferred by bandits,” said Ryudai Nemoto, a 21-year-old worker at a CBD store in Ibaraki, near Tokyo.
“Personally I don’t see it that way, knowing that there are people who are drawn to it for medical and health reasons, but the general society doesn’t see it that way.”