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Marijuana in Japan: The Government Fights Itself Again

Japan could either legalize or enact stricter measures against marijuana. There is a world of difference between these two, so it must tread carefully.



Marijuana seized from a smuggling group on January 23. (Provided by Osaka Prefectural Police)

The Asahi Shimbun online English edition never ceases to supply bizarre, albeit sobering, highlights into the workings of the current government in Japan. On November 21, 2023, Asahi reported on the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's plan to ban the "sale, possession and use" of "hexahydrocannabishexol" (HHCH). HHCH is a synthetic compound similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of many powerful, psychoactive ingredients found in marijuana.

The Ministry's decision followed reports of several people becoming ill enough to seek medical attention this year after eating HHCH-containing "gummies." The Asahi article does not state with certainty whether HHCH itself, or quality control issues arising from the manufacturing process, or both, made people sick.

Gummies containing a compound similar to cannabis, seized by the Kyushu Bureau of Health and Welfare Narcotics Control Department. February 20, Fukuoka City. (©Kyodo)

Confusion Compounded By Error

I just spent about an hour trying to figure out what "hexahydrocannabishexol" is. Checking other English edition Japanese newspapers,  I discovered that what the writers at the Asahi likely meant was "hexahydrocannabihexol."

"Hexahydrocannabishexol" does not exist. "Bi" and "bis" as used in chemistry have different meanings.

Anyway, the Asahi article also reminded readers that while the health ministry banned HHCH, the ministry has been lobbying the Diet to legalize marijuana for medical use. Another substance found in marijuana, cannabidiol (CBD), is less psychoactive than THC and CBD has been used by patients for treatment-resistant epilepsy in Europe and the United States. 

Cannabidiol is already in Japan, present in some foods and so-called therapeutic preparations.

The House of Representatives approved changes to laws regarding marijuana in November. On December 6, the House of Councillors approved changes to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. As before, Japanese Communist Party members voted against the changes.

Dangerous Drugs Have No Place in Japan

The Councillors should look beyond Japan and really reflect on whether or not to change the laws.


In February 2023, Hong Kong banned the production, possession, and importing of CBD. Hong Kong authorities tersely stated that it "is a dangerous drug."

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of CBD in childhood treatment-resistant epilepsy. However, the FDA also points out that the safety and efficacy of long-term treatment with CBD, especially in children, is not entirely clear

The FDA has further discouraged the use of consumer products containing CBD. This is not only because of unsubstantiated claims of their therapeutic efficacy. The FDA also points to irregular quality control measures during the manufacturing process of these products.

Following the American government's distinction between "hemp" (low THC content) and "marijuana" (high THC content), there has been a proliferation of products containing CBD in the United States. (CBD is derived from hemp.) This proliferation helps explain the FDA's apprehension about products containing CBD.

A worker organizes cannabis flowers before the opening of the first legal recreational marijuana dispensary located in the East Village in the Manhattan borough of New York City, US, December 29, 2022. (©REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

Japan is about to step into the same regulatory tar pit that the US has already waded into.

In addition, US drug enforcement and health officials are currently engaged in a game of "whack-a-mole." The American authorities are struggling to crack down on users who evade a growing list of banned THC-like molecules. These crafty users create chemically different molecules with psychoactive effects similar to THC.

Ingesting new psychoactive molecules with unknown safety profiles is an absolutely nasty hobby. The Japanese government has a moral obligation to protect citizens of Japan from this and other dangers of drug use.

How Can Japan Proceed?

There are at least two potential paths Japan could follow.

One is to emulate some European Union countries and several American states in allowing open access to marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. This would entail the expansion of government bureaucracies for the licensing of sellers and taxation of marijuana.


Nonetheless, this could eventually obviate the need for molecules with unknown levels of safety and thereby end the chemical arms race. 

Opening access to marijuana would also avoid criminalizing young Japanese who somehow get their hands on it despite Japan's strict laws against importing and possessing the substance.

Decriminalization, however, invites unwanted guests. Chinese nationals have set up "illegal industrial-scale" marijuana grow facilities in American states with liberal marijuana use laws. 

The other path Japan could follow involves enacting even stricter measures against those who possess marijuana.

Coming Down Hard on the Drug Trade

In Hong Kong, the penalty for possession of either marijuana or CBD is up to 7 years in prison and a fine. In Malaysia, those found guilty of possession of 200 g of marijuana face the death penalty.

Those found guilty of possession of marijuana in Singapore, depending on the amount, face up to 10 to 30 years in prison and possible caning. Possession of CBD in Singapore could lead up to 10 years in prison.

By contrast, those found guilty of possessing marijuana in Japan face up to five years in prison and a fine. Convicted marijuana traffickers in Japan face up to seven years in prison, while convicted traffickers in Malaysia and Singapore are scheduled for a date with the hangman.

Bad Examples for Japan NOT to Follow

While headline-making cases of young Japanese have appeared recently, most young Japanese have not embraced marijuana to the extent of their Western peers. In Japan, as Professor Kevin Doak of Georgetown University stated, "morality is still alive." 


To underscore his point, in a national survey of 7,000 Japanese between the ages of 15 and 64, about 0.24% of 20- to 29-year-olds admitted to having smoked marijuana within the past year.

By contrast, about 100 times as many American 18- to 25-year-olds have smoked marijuana within the past 30 days. Furthermore, 22% of high school students reported using marijuana within the past 30 days. 

Should the gates keeping marijuana out of Japan be unlocked, perhaps social pressure will dissuade the younger generation from indulging. This could come especially from older Japanese, who have almost never been even introduced to marijuana. Or, perhaps younger Japanese will ignore their elders and follow the way of the West.

There is a world of difference between these two ways forward. Japan should think carefully about the path on which she will tread.


Author: Aldric Hama