Despite the fact that marijuana consumption is much lower in Japan if compared with Europe, perhaps due to the existing strict laws in this regard, there are evidences of the consumption of cannabis already in the Neolithic age, when it was used as food in the Nippon country. Later, it started to be used for therapeutic purposes and even as aphrodisiac; during Feudalism, hemp was used to make ropes, that could hide and transport coins that had a hole in the middle at that time, or make textile clothing. Moreover, traditional Japanese doctors, like in the ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia, incorporated cannabis to treat various ailments, such as asthma or skin conditions, as a mild laxative, to relieve poisonous bites, or as an energy tonic. Cannabis was considered a sacred herb, a symbol of purity and fertility in the Shinto religion, and it was also used and praised in ancient Buddhist poetry and hymns.
Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare has recently announced their intention to allow the use of cannabis-based drugs in the country. This would mean that, after the entry into force of this new measure, both the manufacture and sale of these pharmaceuticals will be legal under government license. The professional cannabis sector though continues to insist and ask the government to go a little further with this new measure and, not only allow cannabis for medical uses, but also for cosmetic and food; also, they have asked to legally differentiate between marijuana with a high-level content of THC and industrial hemp. At this moment, and according to the Ministry in charge, only the question of industrial hemp is being studied but the rest of claims will be ruled out in this first legalization stage. Nevertheless, achieving a full legalization could open up the possibility of attracting foreign investment at a time hemp industry is making great strides in developing at a global level.
This new legislation is being drafted and prepared after the deliberation of a parliamentary committee of experts and will necessarily modify current cannabis control laws. Even so, the approval of the bill would not imply a total decriminalization, since it is expected that cannabis will only be allowed in very specific healthcare context. In this way, cannabis will not be fully decriminalized for all uses. In fact, the Ministry plans to toughen penalties for recreational consumption, and medical use would be allowed only under very specific conditions. Cannabis use has increased in recent years, especially among young people, despite the government's eradication efforts and intense anti-cannabis campaigns.
Although this measure in relation to medicinal uses of cannabis represents an important advance, considering that the use and import of medicines containing cannabis is still prohibited, the new bill continues to be very restrictive in Japan, since possession of a small quantity of marijuana is still considered a felony, as well as its cultivation, which can lead to different jail terms ranging from five years for possession to seven for growing. Paradoxically, there is the curious circumstance that cannabis was legal in Japan until 1948, when the American occupation army ordered Japanese government to prohibit its use. Since then, the import or export of any drug made from cannabis has remained strictly prohibited, unless express authorization from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as well the treatment of diseases with medicines derived from this plant, and the distribution and acquisition of these medicines.
Hemp has always been a popular agricultural product in Japan. In fact, after World War II, some cartels of the time wanted to eradicate hemp cultivation as a matter of strategic economic importance. Hemp was one of the most important agricultural crops in Japan since ancient times, but today it is considered practically residual and exclusively intended to produce fibers to obtain and weave hemp fabrics, always under strict government control and with a special license for its cultivation. Due to both the difficulties in obtaining and maintaining the license and the emergence of alternative materials to fiber, hemp production has decreased alarmingly. For example, in 1957 the number of hemp producers in Japan was over 37,000 but in 2016 there were only around 35.
The possibility that Japan learns how to take advantage of the benefits of this versatile plant, as they have done in the past, is something that remains to be seen. Despite the major role cannabis has played in both culture and agriculture and the development of this country as a nation, Japan has to reach now the many countries, on all continents, that have already joined the race to develop a cannabis industry and medicine worldwide.