Yes, medical marijuana could finally be coming to Japan.
Last week, a panel made up of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare pushed for an update to the country’s laws and rules to permit the importation of medical marijuana products. Japan is very conservative when it comes to marijuana: there is a strict ban on its importation, production, and possession, and violating existing laws carries some of the harshest punishments on the globe. Even Paul McCartney was not immune. Marijuana is also hugely stigmatized there. However, if this recommendation is actually taken up by the government, legitimate medical marijuana products may be imported into Japan under its existing laws for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. We could see medical marijuana in Japan in the near future, which would be huge for Asian cannabis policy and the world.
Passed in 1948, Japan’s Cannabis Control Act bans the import, export, production, sale, possession, and research of marijuana. Japan also ratified the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Japan is friendlier to industrial hemp, but not by much. Similar to how the U.S. was before the 2018 Farm Bill, the cultivation of hemp in Japan is strictly controlled by the government. Different than us though, Japan allows for the sale of hemp-CBD products since products derived from the stalks and seeds of cannabis are not criminalized.
Weirdly enough, the use of marijuana may not be officially illegal in Japan. This is because, allegedly, a loophole exists in the Cannabis Control Act that protected hemp farmers from criminal prosecution if they inevitably inhaled “marijuana smoke” from their hemp crop. Japan has also had its issues with synthetic cannabinoids because of current government laws and rules (or lack thereof).
What’s awkward here is that Japan seems to be struggling specifically about what to do with marijuana within its borders. Earlier this year, the health ministry considered amending the Cannabis Control Act to legalize medical cannabis use and to criminalize recreational use. Last year, it recommended that the government allow the use of marijuana to treat “refractory epilepsy.” However, that didn’t go anywhere aside from Japan quietly clearing Epidiolex for clinical trials for Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes back in 2019. Japan is actually the only G7 country not to authorize the use of epilepsy drugs that contain CBD derived from marijuana (rather than industrial hemp) although that’s likely to change shortly.
It looks like getting medical cannabis into the hands of patients in Japan is back on the table (whether through domestic drug production or via import/export) while killing all hopes of a recreational industry is imminent. In any event, the National Diet will likely consider the Ministry recommendation, but nothing official will happen until a bill is filed and makes its way through the approval process between the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors, which is going to take considerable time.