Is Cannabis Legal In Japan?

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In Japan it is illegal if you are found possessing cannabis, but it is not a crime to get high. 

You are also allowed to trade and consume any synthetic cannabinoids as long as it doesn’t contain any THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive element found naturally in cannabis. 

Welcome to the convoluted and overly complicated world of Japanese cannabis legislation. A law that has been in effect since 1948 and one where lawmakers are hoping to change to reflect wider global acceptance of cannabis-related products. 

In December 2023, Japan’s parliament passed a bill which would legalize medical products which contain substances derived from cannabis. Under this new law, cannabis and THC will be classified as narcotics to be regulated and close the loophole in existing restrictions. 

Japan Has Always Had A Long History Of Cannabis Farming

Cannabis has always been part of Japanese tradition. Hemp was used as garments, as food seasoning and traditional medicine to treat insomnia and relieve pain. During World War II, hemp was highly prized and classified as war material. Its main use was for rope by the navy and for parachute cords by the air force. In some areas such as the Tochigi Prefecture, half of the cannabis crops were reserved for the military. 

But it all changed after the war. Following Japan’s defeat the U.S. authorities brought it upon themselves to instill the same prohibition they had previously enacted. Washington outlawed cannabis in 1937 in the States and during its occupation passed the Cannabis Control Act in Japan in 1948. 

This devastated the cannabis farm industry. In 1950 there were an estimated 25,000 cannabis farms nationwide. Today there are fewer than 60 farms remaining. Part of the reasons for this was the plummeting demand for hemp after the introduction of artificial fibers and the cost of the licenses which were required under the Cannabis Control Act. 

As to why consuming cannabis is not considered illegal while possession is, it was originally intended to protect farmers from prosecution as it was not uncommon for them to get high from tending their crops. 

Think Of The Children

But with so few cannabis farms left some are calling for an outright ban, citing public health safety and in the name of protecting the youth. In 2022, a report released by a health ministry panel claimed that cannabis could lead to “the onset of depression and suicidal tendencies”. They also said the legal loophole has “contributed to the abuse” of cannabis by young people who are using it as a “gateway drug”.

This was in response to the growing number of cannabis-related crimes. In 2020, 5.034 people were charged with possession of cannabis, with teens and young adults in their 20s accounting for the majority of offenders according to the National Police Agency. 

Despite Restrictions, The Japanese Cannabis Market Is Worth $154 Million

Japanese law only prohibits the distribution and possession of any product with THC. That has opened the door to synthetic cannabis compounds. Brands such as HHC, THC-O, HHC-O, THCV and 9beta have flooded the market, filling a niche for consumers who are seeking alternatives to tobacco and alcohol. 

The Japanese cannabis market has expanded sixfolds over the past four years, surpassing ¥24 billion ($154 million) in 2023 and estimated to surge to ¥83 billion ($574 million) by 2025. 

However synthetic cannabinoids have been associated with strokes, delusion, and heart attacks. Despite crackdowns by authorities, sellers are able to scramble fast enough and replace the latest banned product with something new. 

“People are only using these synthetics because they are legal and have the same effects, and they can bypass the law and use it safely. But that’s not the best option. The best option is basically for the government to legalize cannabis, monitor it from their point of view, and tax it.”

“People are only using these synthetics because they are legal and have the same effects, and they can bypass the law and use it safely. But that’s not the best option,” says Toshiki Inoue, founder of cannabis brand Chillaxy to Time Magazine.. “The best option is basically for the government to legalize cannabis, monitor it from their point of view, and tax it.”  

Cannabinoid advocates echo this sentiment and  warn that the strict ban on THC is pushing people to unregulated and dangerous products. 

“Since everything is made underground, there’s no structure to the way it’s made—it’s like moonshine,” Yuji Masataka, a doctor of internal medicine and a representative of the pro-cannabis research group Green Zone Japan in an interview with VICE World News

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