If Japan Legalizes Medical Marijuana, What Does That Mean for the Rest of Asia?

Thursday’s recommendation by a health ministry panel to allow cannabis-based medications might herald a historic shift in the nation’s strict drug laws. Since the group advocated for tighter laws against non-medical marijuana use, the modification may have no bearing on Japan’s zero-tolerance approach to marijuana usage for recreational purposes.


The expert group for the health ministry recommended on Thursday that the government amend the laws to allow for the import and manufacture of drugs formulated with chemicals derived from cannabis. But it also pushed for tighter regulations to clarify that using cannabis recreationally is against the law.


Paul McCartney, a former Beatles member, was detained for nine days in 1980 after marijuana was found in his luggage. Other international celebrities have also suffered under Japan’s strict anti-cannabis laws. The government has been discussing, meanwhile, whether to permit the use of cannabis-based medicines, which are already utilized in many other countries to treat conditions including severe epilepsy.

Recommendations by the Panel

Offenses involving marijuana possession, cultivation, or sales in Japan can result in 10-year prison terms, even though marijuana usage for recreational purposes is no longer illegal in Canada, some U.S. states, and some European countries. Only 1.4% of people, according to research utilizing data from 2017, have tried cannabis. When celebrities are detained for possession, the news is typically on the main page.


The health ministry panel highlighted the cannabis-based medication Epidiolex as an example. Epidiolex has received Japanese approval for domestic clinical trials. The committee asserted that due to the restrictions of the present Cannabis Control Act, doctors would not be allowed to prescribe such treatments even if the health ministry eventually approved them.


The panel also demanded that the existing total prohibition on cannabis plants be changed to a ban on THC. According to an official from the health ministry, doing so would ensure that the emerging CBD business is not constrained. They stated that “CBD should be legal as it is already being used in supplements and cosmetics.”


As long as they are created entirely from stalks or seeds, some cannabidiol (CBD) products are legal in Japan. Medicines and other products made from other plant parts are still forbidden, even after removing the psychoactive substance. To comply with medical needs and alter worldwide standards, the panel emphasized modifying the country’s cannabis laws.


The suggested revision would subject medicinal cannabis products to the same efficacy and safety regulations as those regulating medical and pharmaceutical standards.


In contrast to 20–40% in Western nations, the panel also stated in its study that only 1.4% of Japanese individuals have ever used cannabis. Nearly half (48%) of American adults, according to a Gallup poll released in August, claim to have used marijuana at some point. Consumption of cannabis is allowed in Japan but growing, importing, selling, and having it are all legally illegal. Additionally legal are CBD products made directly from stalks or seeds.


According to the health ministry, the group’s recommendations will be considered, and the government may implement some provisions. Still, no changes to the law will take effect until a bill has been submitted to the parliament and approved by parliamentarians. While Japan may consider legalizing medical marijuana, its stance on marijuana for adult usage remains unwavering. 

Japan’s CBD Industry

The value of the Japanese CBD market is expected to reach $59 million in 2019, up from $3 million in 2015, according to Tokyo-based research company Visiongraph. The government is also exploring legalizing marijuana-based medications, which are already permitted in many other countries for treating conditions including severe epilepsy.


Despite the nation’s growing interest in the benefits of cannabis for health, cannabis arrests are still breaking records every year, indicating that the country is not becoming more tolerant of illegal use. Statista reports show that more than quadruple the amount of arrests made in  2014  has been made this year— the Japanese police have made 5,482 cannabis-related arrests since 2021.


Tokyo’s zero-tolerance marijuana policies, the persistent societal stigma against marijuana use, and the city’s efforts to impose stricter restrictions on consumption make it less of a stoner’s paradise. If you go to a small, packed club in Tokyo at night, though, you might find it difficult to believe this when you see young people twerk, body roll, and light up to the weed hymn “Young, Wild & Free.”


They inhale on a joint laced with cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating ingredient of cannabis that is rapidly gaining favor in Japan, rather than smoking illegal marijuana. Ai Takahashi, 33, claimed in a conversation with AFP that she was taught in school and elsewhere that marijuana is an outright no-no, and she also believed that.


Takahashi urged her mother, who was suffering from depression, to try CBD, and it made a significant impact. She remarked that it was at that point that she became certain of cannabis’s potency.


Norihiko Hayashi, who distributes cannabinoids like CBD and CBN in stylish black and silver packaging, advises Japanese cannabis users to be cautious.


“It’s legal, but we ask that customers consume it at home. Do not smoke it on the street, “explained the 37-year-old. Hayashi believes that Japan will eventually legalize medical marijuana. But what about recreation? “Never. Not in almost a century. Maybe I’ll be gone by then.”


A rising number of countries, from Canada to South Africa and, most recently, Thailand, are taking a more lenient stance on marijuana. Thailand went a step further this June, becoming the second Asian country to legalize adult-use cannabis on a government basis. In contrast, Indonesian courts dismissed a judicial review of the country’s narcotics laws and the prospective legalization of medical cannabis in July. Cannabis is still outlawed in China.

Bottom Line

Harsh penalties for cannabis-related offenses in Asia are common. So, when Japan signed its Cannabis Control Act in 1948, it wasn’t an outlier.  The country is looking to change the norm now that people are gravitating in droves to cannabis for its medical and health benefits. If the Parliament approves the suggestions by the Panel, it will close a loophole initially left open to stop law enforcers from arresting cannabis farmers.





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