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How many people use cannabis?
Nihongo

See also:
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Marijuana prices in Japan
See also: The Hemp Control Law
See also: Hemp prohibition in Japan


Note: Much of what you'll read below is mere speculation as it is inherently difficult to estimate victimless "crime". Anybody who knows better is invited to contact us and to send us their comments.


'Lovers' by Ch˘ki (ca. 1800)

Is it so uncommon here?
Japanese drug culture is unique in that, unlike most other developed countries, its most commonly used illegal drug is not the soft drug marijuana but the hard drug "speed" (amphetamines). Arguably even paint thinner, one of the most harmful drugs of abuse (and legal to sell to adults), is more commonly used than marijuana. In my opinion that is not much of a recommendation for the Japanese drugs policy. On the other hand, marijuana has always been around and seems to have gained in popularity in recent years, especially amongst young people. It is often associated with reggae music. Many young Japanese who go abroad to improve their English skills encounter the more liberal attitude towards cannabis in English speaking countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand and some develop a taste for marijuana that they are unwilling to give up on return to a country that often treats them as misfits anyway.

I haven't seen any official or semi-official estimates for marijuana user numbers in Japan, only numbers for "speed". The annual arrest figures there are 20,000, half of which are simple users and half yakuza (gangsters) who are selling. The number of users was estimated at 50-100 times arrest numbers. These estimated 1-2 million speed users constitute roughly the same percentage of the population as the percentage of Americans who take cocaine or crack (which have similar effects as speed) or other hard drugs. So much for the myth of "drug-free" Japan! Where Japan is really different is that it hasn't got six or more times more marijuana users than users of illegal "white powders". To estimate the number of marijuana users we can at least take the 1-2 million Japanese who take hard drugs as an indication of the limited deterrent effect of the law. Japanese have a reputation for being law-abiding folk, but not all act the same and there are other areas such as gambling (pachinko), prostitution and income taxes where the laws are widely broken.

One problem is that there are few polls about drugs in Japan, as it's considered a taboo subject. I have yet to see a single government estimate for numbers of users and for amounts of drugs consumed, except for an estimate of amphetamines users by the National Police Agency. They frankly don't want to know. I've been to the Ministry of Health and Welfare website and there was no data at all on illegal drug users. I looked at the Ministry of Justice too. Nothing. The UNDCP also doesn't quote any estimates for Japan even though considering its GDP (six times the size of China's and maybe ten times India's) it probably is the most lucrative drug market in Asia.

One unreliable indicator are arrest figures. Unreliable because there is no full scale anti-marijuana campaign as in the USA. There is virtually no drug testing of employees. Japanese law enforcement seems largely unable to intercept smuggling vessels off its shores. The first large scale shipment of cannabis hidden in commercial freight in a shipping container was only intercepted in October 1998. If yakuza can smuggle in dozens of Chinese at a time, how much easier are drugs?

The ones getting caught generally are either couriers at airports or users selling to their friends who get jumped on because they screw up some other way. Like the reporter who staged a robbery while on amphetamines or the indoor grower in Akita who got busted because he had sex with a 15 year old girl he met through a date club. Since most marijuana users are otherwise law-abiding citizens, it is quite difficult to quote any ratio between who breaks the law and who gets caught. The fact that cannabis distribution is not generally the domain of the yakuza would suggest that its cultivation and distribution would involve less of a criminal fringe element than in the case of "speed", hiding it from the eye of the law.

Public Attitudes
The most accurate indicator of use are probably attitudes expressed in polls, since attitudes reflect, precondition or prevent experience with drugs. Users can voice support for legalisation without having to admit to illegal activity. In a government poll 3% of all parents disagreed with the statement that "all drug use is bad". The ratio of students who say they would like to try drugs was much higher, some 8% or so if I remember it correctly. This may be the sort of magnitude of illicit drug culture, tasters, casual and habitual users, up to about 3-4 million Japanese. By comparison, some 15% of the US population support legalisation of all drugs and maybe 9-10% are recent drug users (excluding legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco). Stretching our luck, if we combine those two ratios we might get 2-2.5 million Japanese who are recent drug users (again, excluding alcohol and tobacco). How many are cannabis users and how many use other drugs is hard to say.

Since stimulant drugs (amphetamines, "speed") are more popular in Japan than hallocinogenic drugs, cannabis users should number somewhat fewer than the estimated 1-2 million "speed" users. Some 10% of all drug arrests are for cannabis and 1/3 of students who admit they are interested in trying drugs say they are interested in cannabis. That might put the number of cannabis users at anywhere between 1/10 and 1/3 of the 1-2 million who are believed to use speed. That would be 100,000-700,000 cannabis users, about one tenth of the percentage in other industrialized countries even at the high end of the range.

If marijuana had the same detection rate as amphetamines then one would expect about 75,000-150,000 users, or roughly 1 in a thousand. It is unlikely that there are much fewer users than that. However, there are important differences in how these two drugs are produced and distributed in Japan to make a direct comparison based only on arrest figures misleading. While the production of "speed" involves the use of tightly controlled precursor chemicals that are usually imported from China or the Philippines, marijuana is basically hemp, a natural plant that grows wild in some parts of Japan.

There may well be 100,000-200,000 urban cannabis users who account for most of the arrests and up to 600,000 rural users who have much less impact on the figures. 40% of all marijuana arrests are in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area alone, although only 10% of the population of the country live there. Probably a fair amount of the other 60% of arrests is in other large cities such as Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, etc. Experience from other countries shows that domestically produced drugs tend to be at least as common in the countryside as in the big cities.

Domestic cultivation
Without much of an active detection effort such as in Hawai'i or California with helicopters, foot patrols and everything I am convinced there are many more rural users than the fairly modest arrest figures suggest (900 per year amongst the 110,000,000 Japanese who live outside Tokyo), simply because the risks are lower. The annual hemp eradication campaign does not even take place during the hemp growing season but during the flowering season of opium poppies in May/June, as it's really an "opium (and marijuana) eradication campaign"!

The police does not go out of its way to hunt down growers, though when tipped off they will make arrests. I have been told that the most common way people are busted is through tipoffs from family members who fear that their hemp-smoking youngsters are addicted to a dangerous drug and who want to shock them out of drug use by turning them over to the police. Other cases arise out of searches that reveal rolling papers, which arouse suspicion.

Estimates and prison cells
I interviewed one senior Japanese hempster and asked him for his estimate. He says, if one includes those who have been smoking cannabis while abroad but do not currently smoke it in Japan and others who have smoked at some time in the past then the total should exceed the two million speed users. One in fifty Japanese would be a current or former cannabis user. But even if only a third of that were current users and if only one tenth of these were jailed, Japan would have to release every thief, rapist, murderer or other criminal in prison today to make space for these marijuana users.

User numbers and legal reforms
The number of users matters. The smaller the number the longer it will take to build some momentum towards drug policy reform. The ship will just keep on sailing on the set course. Prohibition was a foreign imposition, but it seems very alive and well even in a sovereign Japan. No one dares touch the subject. People here hardly even joke about marijuana. That absence of any Japanese signatures on the letter of the 500 to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan during the special U.N. plenary session on drugs in May 1998 came as a bit of a revelation to me. There's a wide field here, for educating politicians and voters. I think, the most likely converts are to be found amongst the ranks of the Democratic Party, based on their humanistic values.

Another interesting figure would be users amongst the expatriate community, both "hakujin" and South/South-East Asian/African. I've heard there's a clandestine smoker scene amongst English teachers and other expatriates. Most English teachers are young males who are risk takers. This figure is of little consequence for politics though, as few of these foreigners will become politically involved and can't vote anyway. The language barrier does not make them very effective advocates either and their social status is usually pretty low. Remember that drug testing scare at NOVA when a New Zealand teacher was busted? Apparently, he got it from New Zealand and had been selling it to students. He must have served his sentence by now and been deported. I have heard of other gaijin English teachers who smoke it and read about one in Yokohama who got busted for growing it on a rented plot of municipal land. happa

written by Hempman


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See also:
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Marijuana prices in Japan
See also: Hemp prohibition in Japan



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