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Japan has embraced cannabis component CBD, sold in drinks, confectionery and vapes, but will keep its strict laws against recreational use of cannabis. Photo: Getty Images

Japan embraces CBD sold in drinks, candies and vapes at cafes and health stores, but keeps strict laws on marijuana’s recreational use

  • Consumption of non-psychoactive CBD, or cannabidiol, is legal in Japan if extracted from the cannabis plant’s seeds or fully grown stems
  • The government is discussing approving cannabis-derived medicines, while continuing to crack down on recreational use of the cannabis that gives you a high

With its zero-tolerance cannabis laws, deep social stigma against the drug and moves to tighten rules on consumption, Japan is no stoner’s paradise.

But you wouldn’t guess it watching Ai Takahashi and her friends twerking, body-rolling and lighting up to the weed anthem Young, Wild & Free at a tiny, packed club in Tokyo.

What they’re smoking isn’t illegal marijuana, but a joint containing cannabidiol (CBD) – a non-intoxicating active component of cannabis that has become trendy worldwide and is catching on in Japan.

“When I was a child, I was taught at school and everywhere else that marijuana is an absolute no-no, and that’s what I believed too,” Takahashi said. “But being a huge reggae fan, I had a chance to smoke it when I travelled to places where it’s legal.”

CBD is available in Japan in vapes, confectionery and drinks. Photo: Philip Fong/ AFP

The 33-year-old dancer became interested in CBD, which is legal in Japan if extracted from the plant’s seeds or fully grown stems, but not from the leaves or flowers, is sold in vapes, drinks and confectionery at specialist cafes and health stores; there is even a shop in Tokyo’s main airport.

When Takahashi encouraged her mother, who was struggling with depression, to try CBD, it made a big difference, she said. “That’s when I became convinced of the power of cannabis.”

Why CBD is becoming more popular in stressed out Hong Kong

Japan’s CBD industry had an estimated value of US$59 million in 2019, up from US$3 million in 2015, says Tokyo-based research firm Visiongraph. The government is discussing approving medicines derived from marijuana, already used in many countries to treat conditions such as severe epilepsy.

But despite its budding interest in the plant’s health benefits, the country is not getting any softer on illegal use, with cannabis arrests hitting records each year.

It’s a curious contrast that has led Norihiko Hayashi, who sells products containing cannabis components such as CBD and CBN (cannabinol) in sleek black and silver packaging, to advise discretion.

“Rose K” smokes a CBD vape during Cannabis Open, an event to promote CBD products in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Philip Fong/ AFP

“It’s legal, but we ask customers to enjoy it at home. Don’t smoke it outside on the street,” the 37-year-old said.

Hayashi thinks Japan could eventually legalise marijuana for medical purposes.

But recreational? “Never. Not in more than 100 years. Maybe I’ll already be dead.”

What you need to know about a proposed ban on CBD products in Hong Kong

A growing number of countries, from Canada to South Africa and most recently Thailand, are taking a more relaxed approach to weed. But drug use remains taboo in Japan, where celebrities caught using narcotics of any description are shunned by their fans and employers.

Just 1.4 per cent of people say they have tried marijuana, compared to more than 40 per cent in France and around half in the United States.

Even so, cannabis-related arrests have been rising for nearly a decade to a record 5,482 last year, with most offenders in their teens or 20s.

Singer Ayakohime performs during Cannabis Open in Tokyo. Photo: Philip Fong/ AFP

“The internet is awash with false information saying cannabis isn’t harmful or addictive,” health ministry official Masashi Yamane said.

The ministry warns that intoxicating substances like THC, found in cannabis, could compromise learning ability and muscle control as well as potentially increase the risk of mental illness.

To tackle the issue, authorities are looking into closing a loophole originally meant to stop farmers from being arrested for inhaling psychoactive smoke when growing hemp for items like rope.

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia is a University of Colorado history professor who studies narcotics in Japan.

It means consumption of marijuana is technically legal in Japan, although possession is punishable by up to five years in jail. This rises to seven years and a possible fine of up to two million yen (US$15,000) if it’s to sell for profit, with stricter sentences for growing or smuggling.

Japan’s Cannabis Control Act was introduced in 1948, during the post-war US occupation. The United States “saw marijuana as a problem and a threat, even though consumption was really limited and very much stigmatised”, said Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, a University of Colorado history professor who studies narcotics in Japan.

So “these draconian drug laws against a drug that wasn’t really a problem remained on the books”, she said. The rules have ensnared stars including Paul McCartney, who spent nine days in detention in Japan in 1980 after cannabis was found in his baggage.
Singer Paul McCartney was arrested for allegedly bringing in over 200 grams of marijuana into Japan in 1980.
But the country is not an outlier in Asia, where tough penalties for drug use are the norm, although Thailand now allows users to possess and grow cannabis under complicated new guidelines.

And while Japan could allow cannabis-derived medicines as soon as this year, there’s little sign that politicians or the public back further relaxation of the rules.

“Marijuana is seen as something favoured by outlaws,” said Ryudai Nemoto, a 21-year-old employee at a CBD shop in Ibaraki near Tokyo. “I personally don’t see it that way, knowing there are people who gravitate towards it for medical and health reasons, but that’s not how general society views it.”

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