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Japan Passes Historic Legislation to Legalize Cannabis-Based Medicines

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In a landmark move, Japan’s parliament has approved a bill to legalize cannabis-based medicines, marking a significant revision of the country’s strict drug laws. While this decision opens the door to medical products derived from cannabis, it concurrently reinforces the ban on recreational marijuana use.

The modifications to Japan’s cannabis and narcotics control laws, passed in the upper house on Wednesday, herald the potential end to the prohibition of medical products incorporating cannabis-derived substances. Cannabis-based medicines, containing the active ingredient cannabidiol (CBD), are already employed globally to address various conditions, such as severe epilepsy, making this legislative change a victory for patient advocacy groups.

Nevertheless, the revisions represent a strengthening of Japan’s already stringent cannabis policy. The criminalization of marijuana consumption eliminates a previously existing loophole, which officials partially attributed to a recent surge in cannabis-related arrests.

Prior to these amendments, inhaling marijuana was technically legal, while possession carried a potential jail term of up to five years. The initial loophole was introduced to shield farmers from inadvertent inhalation of psychoactive smoke during hemp cultivation. However, alarmed by the rise in cannabis-related arrests, particularly among young people, authorities decided to close this legal gap.

Under the updated laws, individuals caught using or possessing marijuana may now face a prison sentence of up to seven years. Health ministry statistics reveal a record 5,783 cannabis-related arrests in 2021, with a notable increase among teenagers and individuals in their twenties.

A 2020 police probe into 748 people arrested for marijuana possession indicated that nearly 30 percent cited the absence of penalties for consumption as a contributing factor. “As more and more young people gravitate toward abusing marijuana, we hope this revision will put a brake on the trend,” remarked top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno after the bill’s parliamentary approval.

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While Japan’s CBD market has experienced substantial growth in recent years, reaching an estimated $59 million in value in 2019, CBD products will remain unregulated under the new consumption-focused rule. The regulation will specifically target THC, the psychoactive substance responsible for inducing a “high,” according to a health ministry official.

Japan’s Cannabis Control Act, established in 1948 during the post-war US occupation, is consistent with Asia’s prevailing trend of imposing severe penalties for drug use. Despite global shifts in attitudes toward cannabis, Japan has maintained a steadfast anti-drug stance, epitomized by the “dame zettai” (absolutely not) mantra. This unwavering stance has contributed to the stigmatization of marijuana in the country, with just 1.4 percent of the population reporting having tried marijuana, in stark contrast to figures in France and the United States. Notably, Japan’s stringent anti-cannabis laws have ensnared international figures, such as Beatle Paul McCartney, who faced a nine-day detention in 1980 after cannabis was discovered in his baggage.

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