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Japan Lifts Ban On Cannabis-Derived Medications

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Japan’s parliament approved a reform measure on Wednesday that legalizes cannabis-derived medical products. The newly approved public policy measure also imposes stiff penalties for the use of non-approved cannabis products.

Last month lawmakers in the lower chamber of Japan’s parliament approved the measure, which seeks to permit the importation, prescription, and use of products like Epidiolex. Epidiolex is a cannabis-derived medical cannabis product that is currently available in pharmacies in several countries.

The medication is prescribed to treat severe cases of epilepsy. Many patients around the world report taking the medicine and experiencing significant relief. A study conducted in 2019 found that “6.9 per 1000 individuals have epilepsy in the general Japanese population, and that the prevalence of epilepsy increases with age, probably because of elderly onset cerebrovascular diseases.”

Lawmakers in the upper chamber of Japan’s parliament, the House of Councillors, approved the measure today. The other major component of the measure was explicitly codifying the prohibition of the use of non-approved cannabis products.

Once the measure goes into effect, someone caught consuming illegal cannabis products of any kind will face a penalty of up to seven years in prison. Possession of non-industrial hemp cannabis is already prohibited in Japan, and it is unclear how the new consumption law will be enforced.

A somewhat comparator law can be found in the United States in the State of Idaho, where “public intoxication” from cannabis is prohibited and punished by up to six months imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.

The way the law is enforced in that jurisdiction is based on ‘reasonable suspicion’ by the officer, meaning that if an officer has a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that someone has consumed cannabis and is now out in public, they can have them tested, even if it is determined that no actual cannabis was being possessed at the time of the interaction.

It’s a subjective standard that many cannabis advocates around the world try to prevent from being implemented, with advocates pointing out that subjective enforcement is nearly impossible to prevent when such a policy is in place.

The harsher consumer law in Japan is coming after concerns were expressed by lawmakers regarding a ‘spike’ in consumption rates in Japan and a rising rate of arrest for people caught possessing cannabis, particularly young adults.

In the most recent year for which data is available, Japan experienced a 21.5% increase in measured cannabis consumption compared to the previous year. While that may sound alarming to some lawmakers inside and outside of Japan, consider the fact that less than 2% of people in Japan report having consumed cannabis during their entire lives.

By comparison, 41.5% in Canada report having consumed cannabis during their lifetime, and 44.2% in the United States. The double-digit increase in the consumption rate in Japan is more indicative of how low the overall baseline consumption rate was to begin with than it is indicative of a cannabis use epidemic.