Japan Amends Cannabis Law Allowing for Medicinal Products, Criminalizing Rec Use

The previous law prohibited administering or taking cannabis-derived medicines.
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Like many other Asian countries, cannabis in Japan is illegal for both medicinal and recreational use. Though even with some of the world’s strictest cannabis-related laws, the future for cannabis in Japan looks just a little brighter as a recent move has opened the door to potentially usher in a new medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp industry in the country… though it doesn’t come without its caveats.

On Wednesday, a majority vote in Japan’s House of Councillors passed a revision of the country’s Cannabis Control Law. It effectively lifted the ban on cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals along with establishing new criminal penalties for the use of cannabis, first reported by Japan News.

The previous law prohibited administering or taking cannabis-derived medicines, but the revised law deleted this provision and reclassified cannabis under the “narcotics” category within the Narcotics Control Law. This effectively made it legal to use medicine derived from cannabis in Japan, once efficacy and safety are confirmed and approved by the pharmaceutical affairs bodies. Previously, pharmaceuticals derived from cannabis were only allowed to be used in clinical trials.

Given the efficacy of cannabinoids in treating epilepsy, among many other conditions, there have been increasing calls in the country to lift the previous ban. However, the revised laws also introduced a prohibition on unauthorized cannabis use, setting a prison sentence of up to seven years for violations, per Japan Times. The country previously only criminalized the import, export, cultivation, transferring and possession of cannabis.

The lack of criminalization for cannabis use was partially to protect farmers who may inadvertently adsorb plant compounds while growing it for use in hemp products.

This change was due in part to growing concerns around cannabis use in young people, as arrests for cannabis (particularly among younger demographics) have increased more than for any other drug in recent years. In 2021, Japan saw a record number of arrests with 5,783 and approximately 70% of those individuals were in their 20s or younger. 

While they supported lifting the ban on medicinal cannabis, the left-leaning political party Reiwa Shinsengumi opposed the amendments to the Cannabis Control Law that created new criminal penalties for cannabis use.

“What previously had no penalties will now be harshly punished, with a maximum of seven years in prison. I opposed the bill because there is a serious problem here,” said Rep. Taro Yamamoto, leader of the party.

It’s likely that the government will also define permitted levels of THC in cannabis-derived products over time. Currently CBD and other hemp-derived products can be legally imported into Japan, so long as there is no observable level of THC and it’s been derived through “stalks and seeds.”

When it comes to the country’s already-booming CBD and hemp industries, the amendment will likely allow for products derived from flower to be imported into Japan legally so long as THC content falls within the newly defined limit.

The new amendment also requires the government to establish a framework to promote hemp cultivation within Japan, which could lessen the country’s reliance on imports. The government is set to increase the number of cultivation licenses in the country by changing the current Cannabis Control Act to the Law Concerning Regulation of the Cultivation of Cannabis Plants. 

With that, Japan will issue two types of grower licenses: One, which is already available, allows for farmers to grow and harvest industrial hemp, and the other will allow for cannabis production pertaining for medical or pharmaceutical use. The latter license type will be new for Japan.

The revision is expected to be enacted within a year of promulgation, and changes surrounding cannabis cultivation licenses are expected to come in two years.

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