A Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare panel met on May 25 to begin discussions regarding lifting the ban on medical cannabis to benefit patients who suffer from refractory epilepsy.
As reported by The Asahi Shimbun, the ministry may revise the current law sometime this summer. Japanese law currently prohibits any possession or cultivation of any part of cannabis, including “the spikes, leaves, roots and ungrown stalk of the cannabis plant.”
The Asahi Shimbun references that of the “Group of Seven,” or the seven countries with the most advanced economies, which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Of these, Japan currently has one of the strictest approaches to cannabis regulation and prohibition. In August 2021, the Japanese ministry wrote a report that recommended that the government should consider following the example of other countries to allow patients to use medical cannabis.
While the ministry is discussing the addition of a provision to the Cannabis Control Law that would exclude medical cannabis consumption from becoming grounds for punishment, the agency also seeks to further criminalize recreational use.
Although cannabis is illegal, there are some Japanese cannabis cultivators who are licensed to produce hemp to create shimenawa, a specific rope that is commonly used at shrines. There are no punishments for these cultivators, for fear that the production of the ropes may include “unintentionally inhaling substances of marijuana.” However, this assumption was disproven when no farmers’s urine tests came back positive for cannabis in a survey conducted in 2019.
The Asahi Shimbun writes that some experts believe the law should provide treatment options for “those addicted to marijuana to prevent repeat offenses,” which mainly includes Japanese youth.
In December 2021, Japanese gaming company Capcom allowed the use of its Ace Attorney character to curb cannabis consumption in the nation’s youth, in conjunction with the Osaka Prefectural Police (OPP). Previously, Capcom has assisted the OPP with other crime prevention campaigns. “Capcom hopes to support crime prevention activities in Osaka and all of Japan through this program, which will see the production of 6,000 original posters, as well as 4,000 original flyers that will be included with individually wrapped face masks,” the company said in a press release.
Japan has long prohibited cannabis under the Cannabis Control Law that originally went into effect in 1948. Historically, cannabis had its place in Japanese culture and religion, but from the 1950s onward, Japanese law on cannabis mirrored that of the United State’s approach to prohibition. The Japanese hemp industry was still permitted to operate, but due to expensive cultivation licenses and a decline in demand for hemp goods, few farms remain.
While the government perspective is beginning to shift, it is still clear that Japan needs more progress before it can fully embrace cannabis legalization. In 1980, former Beatles band member Paul McCartney visited Japan with less than eight ounces in his possession, which netted him an 11-year ban from returning. In February 2022, a U.S. Marine received two years of hard labor for mail-ordering “a half-gallon of weed-infused liquid and the quarter-pound of cannabis” from an unnamed individual in Nevada. On May 17, a school nurse was imprisoned for allegedly possessing “an unspecified amount of dried cannabis in two jars and a plastic bag.”
Even when Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, the Japanese government made a statement reminding Japanese nationals living broad that cannabis is illegal to consume even if they live in a country where it’s legal.
According to Kyodo News, the National Police Agency release data that there were 5,482 people who were caught in violation of Japan’s cannabis law (4,537 for possession, 273 for illegal sales, and 230 for illegal cultivation).