Japan Stays Tough on Cannabis as Other Nations Loosen Up

KOBE, Japan — From an early age, Japanese society had conditioned Takayuki Miyabe to fear marijuana. But that was before his infant daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy.

Desperately scouring the internet for a cure, he came upon an unexpected savior: a derivative of cannabis called CBD. During a business trip to California, he bought a tiny amber bottle of the elixir, hoping for a miracle.

Mr. Miyabe wasn’t disappointed. Weeks after his daughter began her treatments, her seizures stopped. “My thinking on marijuana did a 180,” he said.

Now he and his wife are developing their own line of CBD oil, joining the growing ranks of Japanese entrepreneurs eager to sell the product to consumers long taught to shun anything related to cannabis.

It won’t be easy. As most other major economies liberalize their laws on marijuana amid growing evidence of its medical benefits, Japan has doubled down on its hard-line position toward the drug, ramping up arrests and increasing efforts to battle the influx of marijuana-friendly information from abroad with public awareness campaigns and tougher laws.

But proponents in Japan hope that CBD — which has some proven medical benefits but none of marijuana’s intoxicating effects — can become a gateway to the so-called gateway drug.

The strategy is inspired by the United States, where news reports about CBD’s efficacy in treating certain types of pediatric epilepsy helped to change people’s minds about cannabis in general and led to widespread legal changes, said Naoko Miki, a co-founder of Green Zone Japan, a nonprofit campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

HealthyTOKYO, a CBD store and cafe that has opened several locations across Tokyo.Credit… Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

CBD is legal in Japan, thanks to a regulatory loophole, and its purported properties — ranging from suppressing inflammation to encouraging relaxation and sleep — make it an attractive product. Analysts estimate that annual demand for the supplement in Japan could grow to $800 million by 2024.

“With CBD, a lot of new people who have never been interested in either medical or recreational cannabis are entering the market. It’s like a new door opened,” Ms. Miki said.

For entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the “green rush” sparked by the loosening of marijuana laws in North America and Europe, Japan is a beguiling market. The world’s third-largest economy and grayest society, the country offers an ideal demographic: health-conscious, aging consumers with abundant disposable income and a bottomless appetite for supplements that promise to balm their ills.

But Japan also has some of the most restrictive cannabis laws in East Asia, a region known for its intolerance of drugs.

None of the countries there are close to allowing recreational marijuana. But Taiwan and South Korea have both legalized medical marijuana amid mounting evidence of its efficacy. And China is the world’s largest producer of industrial hemp and related products. (CBD can be made, but not used, there.)

Tokyo cafes sell gummies, oils and beer made with CBD.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Japan’s censorious attitude toward cannabis is relatively recent, said Junichi Takayasu, who runs a museum on the subject in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. There is no evidence that the plant was used in the past to get high, but hemp long figured in Japanese religious rituals, where it was valued as a symbol of purity. And it was a vital industrial crop for the resource-poor country, used to make fabric and rope through the end of World War II.

Occupying American forces encouraged legislation effectively banning cultivation of the plant as well as the possession or use of its leaves or flowers, as well as anything made from them.

Today, only about 20 farmers are licensed to produce the crop, mostly for shrines, where it is burned in purification rituals or used to make ceremonial knots.

Most Japanese people, unaware of the plant’s long history in Japan, have absorbed the government line on it, Mr. Takayasu said.

Attitudes are changing, however. The number of Japanese who have reported using marijuana has more than doubled over the past decade to nearly 2 percent, according to government data, an increase officials attribute to more positive portrayals of the plant coming from abroad. (By comparison, almost half of Americans say they have tried the drug.)

The numbers are small, but for Japanese officials they represent a tectonic shift. In January, the country’s health ministry convened a panel to consider options for addressing the new reality.

Mr. Miyabe uses CBD oil to treat his daughter’s epilepsy.Credit…Kosuke Okahara for The New York Times

The members evaluated the medical evidence on cannabis, including its social impacts, according to Tsutomu Suzuki, a medical doctor who chaired the group.

“If its effectiveness and safety is confirmed, it should be used as a pharmaceutical,” he said.

But when it comes to recreational usage, he said, “we need to suppress it more.”

In June, the panel’s final report tried to split the difference. On one hand, it recommended regulating cannabis’s chemical compounds, instead of its leaves and buds, as is currently the case. In theory, the change would ease imports of products containing only trace amounts of THC, the primary molecule responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating properties.

The report also recommended allowing trials of cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals, such as Epidiolex, an anti-seizure medication made from CBD. (Japan requires all drugs to undergo domestic trials.) It didn’t, however, mention medical marijuana.

Still, the report’s primary focus was battling marijuana’s spread, including making it a crime to use it. Under the current legal regime, it said, people “are likely receiving the message that ‘using marijuana is OK.’”

Recent marijuana crackdowns have raised concerns about government overreach.

In September 2020, the authorities in Tokyo detained two people for 20 days for posting on social media about marijuana and encouraging others to try it. When New York legalized marijuana in March, Japan’s consulate there warned Japanese to steer clear or face potential legal consequences at home.

Arrests for the drug have almost doubled over the past five years, passing 5,000 in 2020 for the first time, according to police data. This year is on track to be much higher.

Punishments in Japan are generally light. Still, arrestees often risk being fired or expelled from school, according to Michiko Kameishi, a defense lawyer and legalization advocate in Osaka.

Society can be unforgiving. “In Japan, people are much more likely to question someone who breaks a rule than question the rule itself,” she said.

While the authorities haven’t exactly encouraged the CBD industry, they largely view it as benign.

Companies first began selling the product around 2013 after noticing that it fell under a legal loophole allowing the importation of products made from cannabis stems and stalks, as long as they are THC-free.

Sales have grown rapidly since.

Today, chic Tokyo cafes sell oils, gummies and beer made with CBD. It is available at Don Quixote, one of Japan’s largest discount chains, and on the country’s two biggest domestic e-commerce sites.

Ayumu Fukuda opened a CBD cafe near bustling Shibuya Station after encountering the supplement in California, where she was doing promotional work for the Japanese decluttering guru Mari Kondo.

She believes the product will be a hit with stressed-out Tokyoites desperate to relax: the country, she said, is need of something to help people “become spiritually liberated.”

Still, many CBD entrepreneurs have tried to dissociate their product from marijuana, avoiding — for example — packaging that features its distinctive, spiky leaves.

“At this point, saying, hey, let’s legalize marijuana, I wouldn’t do that,” said Priyanka Yoshikawa, a former beauty queen who has launched a line of CBD-infused skin products. “I’m in the CBD market. I’m not doing it as any kind of activism.”

Mr. Miyabe, however, sees things differently.

By the time he learned about CBD, his daughter had already had one major brain surgery. Her worsening seizures had seriously delayed her cognitive development.

Treating the condition, doctors said, would most likely require a second operation that might cause permanent damage. Only a few were even willing to consider CBD as a treatment.

Mr. Miyabe’s positive experience with the supplement has made him wonder what other benefits cannabis has to offer.Credit…Kosuke Okahara for The New York Times

His positive experience with the supplement has made him wonder what other benefits cannabis has to offer.

“If we’d known about CBD earlier, she might not have needed that first surgery,” he said, as he watched his daughter playing with her younger sister in a park.

His new line of CBD oils, he said, will make the supplement — which costs his family more than $300 a month — more affordable for other children.

The bottle features a pen-and-ink drawing of his daughter, subtly wreathed with cannabis.

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