WEED CRISIS: Enter Japan’s Void

While passing a marijuana-filled dutch may seem pretty petty to some in the States, in the East, weed is no laughing matter.

Words: Miko Uno

“Rollin down the street, smoking indo, sipping on gin and juice…”

“I got five on it, messing with that indo weed…”

“Let’s just stay in the moment, smoke some weed, drink some wine. Reminisce, talk some shit, forever young is in your mind…”

I am sure you’re familiar with these songs by some pretty prominent musicians and their common theme, marijuana. Although it’s illegal to smoke it [except medicinally], it’s everywhere in the US. It’s on TV, in the movies. Everyone’s heard about or watched Showtime’s black comedic-drama, Weeds, which revolves around a widowed mother who turns to selling marijuana to support her family… Didn’t the actor who supported California’s Prop 19, which would legalize marijuana in the state (but was ultimately defeated), light up a joint on TV? And the smell, there’s always someone passing you by on the street or driving by that’s smoking it. So what’s the big deal, right?

I couldn’t possibly talk about the reason why weed is prohibited in most countries from a medical point of view, since I am no expert on drugs and their effects. What I do know is what’s very clear is that marijuana use is widely exposed in the states, regardless of how illegal it is.

So let’s change our focus to the situation in my country, Japan. We just experienced a double whammy of a major earthquake and a tsunami. As a result of the devastation, we’re working to rebuild a few cities, while facing radioactive scares like a scene out of a movie. And to say that stress levels are high in Japan right now, is putting it lightly. So how do we relieve the pressure and the anxiety? …It won’t be by smoking weed.

Unlike America, Japan is a small homogeneous nation, occupied by somewhat open-minded people whose culture is very different from that in the US. In face, most citizens in Japan think that marijuana is an extremely dangerous drug. And if you told someone that you’ve smoked it, you would be immediately considered a pariah. Marijuana is absolutely taboo in Japan. The word should never be uttered, let alone smoked.

One would think that with the rise over the past few years, of college students, musicians, artists, athletes, actors and common folk, who’ve recently been caught having marijuana, that things were finally beginning to change. News outlets, like Yahoo! Japan, that quickly report these findings—often times berating users as stone-cold drug addicts—atop their homepages, so that even Japanese heads who live outside of the country hear about it, prove otherwise.

There is simply not enough education about drugs in Japan. I would even go further to say that I doubt that most Japanese people know the difference between marijuana and hard drugs at all, especially given that marijuana is put in a same category of hard illegal drugs like cocaine, MDMA and heroin. Even in 2011, most assume that all of these drugs have the same effect.

Just recently, Ryoko Hirosue, a famous Japanese actress who appeared in the 2009 Oscar winning movie Departures (Best Foreign Language Film of the Year) and has several Japanese movies and TV dramas to her credit, announced her marriage to a candle artist, Candle June, who decorates fashion shows and music festivals with his original candles and also organizes charity events such as Love for Haiti. But rather than celebrate their upcoming nuptials, the Japanese media harped on a quote he made in an old interview.

He said, “I have decided to quit drinking, smoking tobacco and drugs until the wars and terror attacks in the world are over.”

Even with no mention of weed specifically, he was still condemned. Rumors spread and he and his soon-to-be wife were labeled drug addicts indefinitely. Meanwhile, the article was years old, and he was probably clean by the time of the new media frenzy. But this is Japan, a place where it is far unlikely that a celebrity like Miley Cyrus would still be on TV after a video of her smoking salvia was leaked, or like Lady Gaga, who openly confessed during an interview with 60 Minutes that she smokes marijuana and drinks whiskey while composing music.

So why does marijuana get such a bad rap in Japan? Don’t they grow cannabis over there? Back in the day, cannabis hemp was one of the main exports from local farms, the resource used in many ways such as clothing, paper, fuel and for medicinal purposes like painkillers and hypnotic drugs. But Japanese hemp was known to be less psychoactive and there was no record of it’s abuse in the those days.

However, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, cannabis was made illegal by the American military occupation government for the simple reason that it was already illegal in the US for almost ten years. At that time, the US government was trying to grow the petrochemical industry and hemp was ousted by artificial fibers. Under the Allies of World War II, Japan rebuilt everything and once Allied occupation ended, the petrochemical industry in Japan flourished, making Japan one of the developed nations of the world. In hindsight, it’s quite ironic that while marijuana remains on everyone’s radar in the US, America remains responsible for banning “green” in Japan in the first place.

If I have it my way (*winks*), someday I may get married to a very famous Japanese celebrity. God forbid the Japanese media find this article! I will most likely be criticized for my past experiences smoking marijuana, even in Tokyo. Before I went to nightclubs, I smoked behind the buildings. And of course if there were drinks, music and friends, there was marijuana somewhere lurking. But that was more than ten years ago. Now, I couldn’t imagine smoking, nor do I have the slightest intention of smoking trees in Tokyo.

Why, because Japan is the only country in a group of eight, where you could be imprisoned if you’re caught having even a small amount of marijuana—like five years in prison. And while Japan is developed economically and global in mindset in some cases, the media would have you believe that foreigners are often to blame for selling marijuana in nightclubs. Incidentally, there could be some truth to this: a whopping 46 percent of Americans have one kind of drug experience or another in their lifetime, while in Japan that number is only 2.9 percent, according to the World Drug Report (2010).

Japanese people know how rigid the rules are when it comes to “Mary Jane” and how their careers and lives could be ruined, simply because of the critical views taken by Japanese society. But there are some people in Japan, who are pushing for the legalization of marijuana. Since 2001, there has been an annual Marijuana March held in Toyko by local organizers and supporters calling for a restructuring of the laws. While only a few actually attend, the march has received international support from countries like New Zealand and Italy. Just this year, the march in favor of the drug doubled as a march against the controversial issue of nuclear power, but the subject of the safety of weed was still the most central conversation.

While I am not a supporter of legalizing marijuana, and I’m not known to be one to criticize Japan’s marijuana laws because I’m totally not a health professional by any means, I do believe that accurate cannabis education is necessary, if not for eliminating prejudice, then for ridding ourselves of ignorance.

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