Japan’s War on Fake Weed The incessant game of whack-a-mole that Japan plays with loophole drugs

    Even though Japan is the birthplace of crystal meth (which makes me wonder how the Japanese feel about Breaking Bad), it has notoriously stringent drugs laws. Get caught with some marijuana in Japan, you’ll face severe consequences.

    But in Japan, like virtually anywhere else in the world, there are just so many drugs out there that it’s hard for the government to keep tabs on all of them. It’s especially difficult because people are always hard at work engineering new drugs that get around existing laws. In Japan, these are called “loophole drugs” ( 脱法だっぽうドラッグ).

    The Japanese government has been trying to stem the tide of new, artificial drugs by banning what it can. Last summer, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry designated four new drugs as narcotics in an attempt to quell the burgeoning loophole drug business.

    The whole thing feels a bit like a futile game of whack-a-mole — for every new drug the government bans, there’s some guy in a lab somewhere inventing two more drugs that fall between the cracks of existing laws.

    One of the most infamous loophole drugs in Japan is synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as “spice.”

    A huge worm from Dune exploding out of the sand

    Right now in Japan, spice is in a weird cycle. The government bans new variations of spice every few months but, until they’re banned, those spice variants are perfectly legal. Any shop can legally sell spice as long as they say that it’s not meant for human consumption. And then the variation of spice is banned, a new variation hits shops, and the cycle begins anew. It’s like the Circle of Life, but with fewer singing animals and more drugs.

    Vice magazine, while it’s not accidentally revealing the location of antivirus magnate and murder suspect John McAfee, produces a lot of interesting videos. I’m a big fan of its videos on North Korea, and its video about Mormons in Mexico was really fascinating.

    Just last week, Vice released a video looking at synthetic weed in Japan. The video follows a Japanese woman purchasing and smoking fake weed for her first time ever. Unsurprisingly, a dude with huge dreads leads the whole effort.

    Ambulance driving amid traffic
    A spice trip can go real bad, real quick
    Source: Kristian Mollenborg

    But the party may be coming to an end pretty soon. With spice being such a fringe, barely-legal substance and completely unregulated, it’s done some damage to its users. Bad trips and some hospitalizations have made it clear that you should take spice at your own risk.

    In the last couple of years, the US military has really started cracking down on its soldiers stationed in Japan using spice. The military’s put into place a strict, zero-tolerance policy towards the drug in any of its forms, and has started testing and disciplining soldiers for their use of spice.

    And just last month, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry decided to take a sledgehammer to this game of whack-a-mole and introduced sweeping, new bans to prohibit synthetic weed once and for all. Under these new rules, almost 800 drugs will be banned (compared to the 90 or so that are banned now).

    Will this be the swan song for drugs in Japan? If history is any indicator, probably not. Even if it’s sniffing glue or chugging cough syrup, people always seem to find a way to get their fix.