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Cannabis laws in Japan: Is weed legal?

Cannabis laws in Japan: Is weed legal?

Medical: Illegal
Recreational: Illegal
*CBD products are legal in Japan, as long as they contain no THC whatsoever and are not made from cannabis flower 

Japan is known for its world-leading innovations, technology, and design, but when it comes to cannabis, the island nation remains decidedly regressive. Japan has some of the harshest drug policies on Earth, including for cannabis — and is one of the worst places on Earth to get arrested on marijuana possession charges.   

However, the country has a history of cannabis art dating back millenia, and scholars believe that the plant was used for centuries as a textile and for use in traditional Shinto ceremonies. 

But in modern times? 

Under the country’s Cannabis Control Act (enacted in 1948), possession of cannabis is punishable by up to five years imprisonment, while growing, importing, and exporting cannabis can be punishable by 10 years in prison. While many countries around the world have legalized or decriminalized cannabis or have eased up on enforcement in recent years, in Japan in 2018 there was a sharp increase in cannabis-related arrests — and 80% of them were possession charges. 

There is also a strong social stigma that surrounds cannabis use in Japan, and only an estimated 1.8% of Japanese have reported consuming cannabis, as opposed to more than 40% in the US and Canada. This was notoriously reflected in the 2020 arrest of a Japanese man and woman for speaking positively about using cannabis in social media posts.

Some hemp cultivation is permitted in Japan, but on a relatively very small scale. Since 2016, the country has permitted the sale of CBD and some Japanese companies produce cannabidiol products as well.

Mt Fuji is seen against the cityscape ofTokyo
Japanese authorities can prosecute citizens for violating its cannabis laws — even if they used it abroad. (Shutterstock)

Who can get medical cannabis in Japan?

Japan does not have a medical cannabis program and does not allow the use of cannabis for patients seeking to treat a medical condition. That could potentially change in the near future, however. 

In 2019, Japan approved clinical trials for Epidiolox — a cannabis derived medicine used to treat severe forms of childhood epilepsy such as Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes. In 2018, Epidolex became the first plant-derived cannabinoid prescription medicine to receive FDA approval. 

And while Japanese authorities can prosecute citizens for violating its cannabis laws — even if they used it abroad, in countries where the plant is legal, the president of the Japanese Medical Marijuana Association has explored the possibility of Guam serving as a medical tourism destination for Japanese patients seeking cannabis treatment. 

What marijuana products are allowed in Japan?

CBD products that are THC-free and made from hemp stems — not flower — are legal in Japan. Local stores in Japan can legally sell CBD products, which can also be ordered online either from Japanese or foreign producers. 

The strict regulations in Japan mean that such products can be more rigorously tested and subject to more strict standards. 

CBD has become especially trendy in Tokyo, where CBD shops and cafes allow for the on-site consumption of CBD in edibles and topical treatments.

Crowds of people walking at Shinagawa station in busy morning rush hour, Tokyo, Japan.
Stigma is a major issue facing cannabis fans, patients, and all those who support legalization in Japan. (Shutterstock)

How much does CBD cost in Japan?

The cost of purchasing CBD in Japan depends mainly on the company in question and the amount of CBD per dose or container. According to DailyCBD, the top six CBD oils available in Japan sell for $0.04 to $0.20 per milligram 

According to “TimeOut Tokyo,” a cup of coffee with added CBD oil in a Tokyo CBD cafe can cost around ¥400 ($3.65) or double that, while CBD-infused meals can cost around ¥1,100 ($10) or more, depending on the establishment and the amount of CBD per serving. 

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Weed culture in Japan — and the horror stories you may have heard 

Stigma is a major issue facing cannabis fans, patients, and all those who support legalization in Japan. The Tokyo Marijuana March has been held since 2001, though it’s a much more reserved and smoke-free event than its counterparts in many other countries. Organizers have described participants as more likely to have lived overseas where the laws are more permissive. 

The popular perceptions surrounding cannabis in Japan can strongly resemble those of the ‘Reefer Madness’ era in the United States. It is depicted as a life-destroying substance on the same level of cocaine or heroin, which leads to lethargy and failure in a society that prizes industriousness and hard work.

The prevalence of this Reefer Madness perception should perhaps not come as a surprise. The country’s cannabis Control Act was enacted in 1948, when Japan was still under the occupation of the United States, where such a perception of cannabis was very widely accepted at the time. 

This perception hasn’t prevented a sharp rise in cannabis-use and arrests in recent years, however, especially among people in the 20-29 age bracket. 

The government has a zero tolerance policy on cannabis, but this approach doesn’t apply to investments, it appears. According to Bloomberg, Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund has acquired $80 million in at least three major cannabis companies. 

Foreign visitors to Japan are likely familiar with horror stories involving locals or foreigners caught with a small amount of cannabis or another controlled substance. 

In 2019, a Japanese pop idol publicly begged for forgiveness (and pressed his forehead to the pavement in front of cameras for 19 seconds) after he was arrested for possession of 2 grams of cannabis. The singer, Junnosuke Taguchi, also vowed to suspend any performances or professional engagements and promised to “never again stain my hands with illegal drugs or criminal activity.” 

Nearly a decade earlier, in 2011 a Tokyo musician was arrested after a small bag fell out of his pants in a convenient store. 

More famously, Paul McCartney arrived in Japan with eight ounces of marijuana in 1980 and spent nine days in a detention facility before he was deported from the country

In general, foreigners should avoid using cannabis or other illegal drugs in Japan, or exercise extreme caution if they are in the proximity of them while in the country. 

This also applies to prescription medication that may be legal in the person’s home country. In 2019, an Oregon woman was jailed in Japan on suspicion of smuggling amphetamines after shipping her prescribed Adderall from South Korea to Japan where she was to begin a job teaching English. 

(Amphetamines are the most popular drug of choice in Japan.)

The future of weed legalization in Japan 

The newfound popularity of CBD in Japan and the approval of clinical trials for cannabis-derived medications provide legalization advocates with some optimism about what the coming years could mean for cannabis law reform in Japan. In addition, the fact that such a disproportionately large percentage of people arrested for cannabis possession are young people may mean that differences in generational attitudes could bode well for reform in the future. 

Until then, legalization advocates and people who need medical cannabis will face a very uphill battle against government and police opposition to the plant, local media that demonizes cannabis use, and a strong, prevalent social stigma that has persisted for more than 80 years. 

In addition, the island country has no neighboring countries that have eased up on cannabis laws, and the fact that East Asia remains one of the more draconian regions for cannabis enforcement provides more reason to believe that people may have to wait a long while for change to come.

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