The Japan Times reported this week on data published by the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, an agency under the national Ministry of Health, that illuminated how excessive “use of such over-the-counter drugs has grown more popular in recent years, with the number of cases of addiction involving them increasing sixfold between 2012 and 2020.”
But the outlet also touched on a “more recent study conducted by Saitama Medical University’s Clinical Toxicology Center found that among eight surveyed medical institutions, a total of 124 patients were taken to the hospital for overdosing on over-the-counter drugs between May 2021 and December 2022.”
According to the Japan Times, the “average age of patients was 22, and nearly 80% of them were female.”
“The majority of patients are young women in their 20s or younger,” said Ryoko Kyan, an instructor at the center and one of the lead researchers on the project, as quoted by the Japan Times. “As for the motive behind their overdose, around 70% of respondents said their intent was suicide or self-harm.”
“I think what we found in this research was that it’s not necessarily people that are alone and isolated,” added Kyan. “It’s a lot of people who are integrated into society, whether it be through family, school or work, but they nonetheless have worries that they cannot disclose to people around them and are finding it hard to live.”
The outlet NHK World-Japan said that roughly “34% of the people surveyed were school or university students, while 26.2% were full-time workers,” while more “than 80% were living with their families or partners at the time.”
“The survey also found that more than half of the people who overdosed required intensive care in hospital,” the outlet reported. “One 15-year-old girl in Tokyo told NHK she consumed as many as 30 cold pills after becoming upset about problems in a personal relationship.”
According to the Japan Times, “in over 60% of the cases [the drugs] were bought in a normal pharmacy or store,” while in other cases “respondents said they either found medicines at home that their family had already bought or that they purchased them over the internet.”
Health officials in Japan have recently discussed proposals to legalize medical cannabis in the country. Reuters reported last fall that a panel organized by the country’s health ministry “recommended revising the nation’s drug laws to allow for the importation and use of medicinal marijuana products.”
“The recommendation was based on meeting medical needs and to harmonise Japan with international standards, the committee said in a report. The revision would apply to marijuana products whose safety and efficacy were confirmed under laws governing pharmaceuticals and medical devices,” Reuters reported at the time, noting that the country has “has very strict laws banning the importation, production, and use of illicit substances,” and that the health ministry committee’s report said “that only 1.4% of people in Japan had ever used marijuana, compared to 20-40% in Western countries.”
Japan’s strict prohibition on cannabis was enshrined in the 1948 Cannabis Control Act, a post-World War II law that was based largely on the United States’ own ban on pot. Importing marijuana into Japan can carry a punishment of as many as seven years in prison. (High Times published a handy guide in July for any would-be tokers who are traveling abroad in Japan. Spoiler alert: you are probably safer doing opium.)
In its report this week, the Japan Times cited Yoshito Kamijo, the head of the center and lead researcher on the project, who suggested that “it may come as no surprise that many turn to over-the-counter medicines that are both legal and easily accessible” given the strict prohibition on drugs.
Kamijo also noted the isolation induced by the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in the trend.
“Traditionally, young people could go to school and talk about their worries and problems in life with their friends,” said Kamijo, as quoted by the Japan Times. “But when that becomes difficult, many turn to social media or the internet to discuss their issues and end up being exposed to information on how they can escape from it all using drugs.”
The Japan Times noted that Kyan, meanwhile, pointed out “that recently, it has become easier for young people to stumble upon information related to overdosing on over-the-counter drugs while searching the internet, and that there are online communities that support such behavior.”
“It’s not an issue that can be solved just by medical institutions,” said Kyan, as quoted by the outlet. “By having people become more aware that there are a lot of young people feeling isolated within society and their families, hopefully there will be more people both at home and in school keeping an eye on how their children are doing.”