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Growing Hemp in Japan
In a country with strict but sometimes bizarre drug laws, Yasunao Nakayama possesses a much sought-after permit

by Stuart Young, August 8, 1997

TOKYO (Reuters) --

His recently acquired "hemp grower's license" allows him to cultivate the less potent cousin of the "demon weed" -- Cannabis Sativa, or marijuana. "I can grow hemp to make fibers and extract the oil. ... Hemp and cannabis were used throughout the ages in Japan for clothes and as a herbal remedy. I'm just continuing that," Nakayama said.

He is the first person to receive such a license in highly urbanized Shizuoka Prefecture, 60 miles south of Tokyo, but he joins traditional hemp farmers in rural areas who have carried on an age-old industry despite Japan's strict drug laws.

In his shop called "Kaya," the word used for cannabis in the lyrics of Jamaican reggae musician Bob Marley, Nakayama sells skin creams containing hemp oil and clothes and craftwork made from hemp grown in his garden.

A "hemp festival" held every August in Shizukuishi-cho village in northern Iwate Prefecture draws growing crowds, said Haruko Oda, a member of the local hemp growers' association. "We get more and more people every year who come to join in the harvest. ... We cut the seven-foot high hemp plants, blanch them in hot water and then burn the leftovers."

The association of 15 growers sells medicines, skin creams and insect repellents made from hemp, an inextricable part of the local culture for centuries despite a ban introduced by American occupation authorities after World War II, Oda said.

Hemp Used for Cloth for Feudal Lords

"Before the ban we had been growing hemp here for centuries. It was used to make cloth for the feudal lords and for wedding ceremonies because of the fineness and strength of the thread and as a medicine," she said.

"Now we have to grow the less potent varieties and get a license from the local health center just to cultivate it. ... But of course we don't smoke it."

Lawyer Hidehiro Marui, who has spent the past 22 years defending people charged with possession of cannabis, said the 1948 ban on marijuana imposed by the U.S. authorities was alien to Japanese culture.

"Until the U.S. forces ban, cannabis had been freely used in Japan for over 10,000 years. There is archeological evidence which shows cannabis was used for clothing material and the seeds were eaten in Japan right back to the Jomon Era (10,000 to 300 BC)," he said. "The demonization of cannabis is not part of Japanese heritage."

Despite the fact that hallucinogenic substances such as psylocibin in magic mushrooms and mescaline in peyote cacti are specifically prohibited by Japan's drug laws, their raw source is freely on sale in Tokyo's crowded Shibuya leisure and entertainment district.

Standing by his stall laden with hallucinogenic materials -- magic mushroom spore kits, whole peyote cacti, bella donna leaves, morning glory seeds, passion flower leaves, Hawaiian wood rose seeds and wormwood -- Mitsumi, 26, capitalizes on the paradoxical nature of Japan's narcotics legislation.

"It's no problem. You can import it if it's not processed. And there's no ban against growing it yourself," he said.

Loopholes in Drug Laws

A Health and Welfare Ministry spokesman confirmed the loophole, saying: "It's illegal to possess or import the drug itself but the plant from which it comes is legal." The loophole exists because Japan's drug laws were imposed from outside, he said.

In the first half of the century, he said, cannabis was a prescription drug for treating asthma and other respiratory diseases, but Japan was forced to adopt stricter controls due to international pressure. "This means that under Japanese law cannabis is treated as if it was just as dangerous as heroin or cocaine ... although it could be said that cannabis is about as addictive or mind-altering as alcohol," he added.

Japan's "yakuza" criminal gangs control the vast majority of drug trafficking and their most lucrative product is amphetamines, known by the street names "speed" or "ice," which are popular as a pick-me-up for those with fast-paced lifestyles, a National Police Agency spokesman said.

Amphetamines-related convictions have risen continually over the past five years -- last year 19,400 people were convicted for amphetamine smuggling, possession and use, up 2,300 on the previous year, he said. Meanwhile, cannabis convictions fell from 2,000 in 1994 to 1,200 last year.

Nevertheless, police put priority on catching cannabis offenders as much as trying to break hard drug smuggling rings. "Amphetamines are the big problem but we are enforcing the cannabis laws as rigorously as the other drug laws," the police spokesman said.

Underworld and drug scene non-fiction writer Nobuhiro Motobashi said the cannabis ban should be relaxed to strike a blow against yakuza criminal gangs who traffic in marijuana and other drugs.

"The yakuza are running a dirty trade in drugs which could be seriously damaged if you relaxed marijuana restrictions and at the same time tightened laws to catch hard drugs traffickers," he said. "In my own experience, marijuana isn't that dangerous, not like amphetamines or cocaine. Cannabis should still be illegal but it should be in a class of its own."

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This page last updated on 17 April 1999.