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Cannabis has been an integral part of Japanese culture since the beginnings of its history. Cannabis is a sacred herb to the religion of Shinto, and was also used and praised by ancient Zen poets and Buddhist monks.  Japanese merchants dealt in coins which had square holes in the centre, and were carried on strings of hemp. The Japanese five yen coin still has a hole in it, left over from this practice.Here is the latest from Terrie’s Take 506 — The Demon Weed, ebiz news from Japan. Be sure to sign-up for Terrie’s monthly newsletter and read Japan, Inc. magazine for tech and biz information on Japan!

 If there is anything the Japanese authorities are allergic to, following perhaps foreign burglars and divorced foreigners wanting custody of their kids, it would be marijuana — the demon weed that always seems to have been “bought from a foreigner in Roppongi”. The media is having a field day with the number of arrests frequently, and clearly the police are feeding lots of juicy details as each case breaks. The National Police Agency announced this last week that it arrested 2,778 people for marijuana offenses in 2008, 22.3%  more people than in 2007. 90% of those arrested where first-time offenders — not habitual criminals, and 60% of them were under the age of 30. Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen a parade of high-profile marijuana users get busted. Entertainers, sumo wrestlers (Russian and Japanese), students at prestigious universities (e.g., Keio and Waseda), foreign rugby players, and even large portions of entire university rugby teams.

How do Japanese get a taste for marijuana? With the draconian laws over possession, it’s surprising that anyone goes anywhere near the stuff. Still, partly it’s because of the weird split personality the judiciary has over the various forms of the plant. Since the seeds do not yet contain detectable levels of THC, the active psychotropic ingredient, they are legally sold in Japan as a spice for cooking and as bird seed. Some of this product has been irradiated and can’t grow into plants, but other sources don’t go to this amount of effort.

More recently seeds are also sold as curiosities and you can go online and order them from both local suppliers as well as from “coffee shops” in Amsterdam — 10 seeds for between JPY10,000 to JPY20,000. It’s only when they’ve been planted and the plants produce THC that the substance suddenly becomes illegal. But to get to the stage of wanting to plant out your own stash, it seems that most Japanese kids, and usually it’s the richer, better educated kids who are likely to travel overseas, that get to taste the demon weed first. They will try it on the beach in Hawaii, or in universities on the U.S. mainland, in Australia, the U.K., etc. Or they’ll travel to Amsterdam to enjoy the hash experience. However it starts, they soon realize that marijuana can be a lot of fun and is essentially harmless (let’s not get into possible gene damage). When they get back to Japan, they realize that the demonization of the plant is not based on fact or logic and they talk to their friends, write about it on Japanese blogs, and basically reinforce the aura of coolness that the hemp culture has here.

There are also the wild hemp plants up north in Aomori and elsewhere, which we recall were particularly popular with surfers back in the 80’s and 90’s. Things may be a bit different these days, especially now that the authorities in Hokkaido have started issuing growing licences for varieties proven not to be a significant source of THC, but back then, in the middle of Fall, groups of guys would get in their vans and do a road trip to the areas where THC-rich wild hemp plants are still known to pop up. Indeed, there were so many people doing this that they got to be a nuisance and the police were called out to warn them to stay away.

We don’t do drugs — it’s just not worth the risk. However, researching for this column, and amusingly we found lots of information on the teacher website www.gajinpot.com, we find that the price of weed in Tokyo is as high as JPY200,000 a gram, which is about 40 times the price in Hawaii. This means that not only does the trade attract criminals out to make some big money, but it is also highly tempting for kids who otherwise might not bother to sell the stuff. After all, if you’ve been able to buy the seeds, and marijuana does grow furiously like a weed, then what better way to pay for electricity and grow lights than to sell a few bags to your friends so as to support the costs? Unfortunately, despite the seemingly innocuous nature of marijuana, the fact remains that Japan wants none of the foreign drug taking culture here. Sentences for locals include 3-5 years in prison, while for foreigners it means prison followed by deportation.

We don’t see any likelihood of attitudes changing any time soon. So the result is that otherwise law-abiding kids, who would have gone on to quietly become doctors and scientists, are instead hauled before the courts, are castigated in the newspapers, and have their lives and family reputations ruined for good. It all seems so pointless. Heck, one of them might have even become a future Prime Minister. Since Japan likes to emulate U.S. values (it was GHQ that criminalized marijuana in 1948 in the first place), maybe they’ll take note that Barack Obama is the first U.S. president to admit youthful marijuana and cocaine use, and certainly he has the people’s trust a darned sight more than any Japanese politician of recent times.