EDITORIAL: Jail terms won’t solve complex problem of marijuana use

Amendments to the cannabis control law and the narcotics and psychotropic substances control law that passed the Diet late last year feature a new criminal offense for cannabis use.

The Dec. 6 revisions classify cannabis as a narcotic and make unauthorized use or possession a criminal offense punishable by up to seven years in prison.

The background to this legislative action includes a marked increase in arrests for cannabis-related offenses. In 2021, a record 5,783 people were taken into police custody for cannabis-related violations, of whom about 70 percent were under 30 years old. The charges revolved around possession and production,

Previously, even if cannabis was detected in urine samples taken during an investigation, no criminal charges would be filed if the individual was not in physical possession of the substance. Outlawing the act of using cannabis could potentially lead to a spike in arrests.

Perhaps influenced by the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in some states in the United States and other parts of the world, experts point to a growing trend in Japan, especially among younger generations, to view cannabis use in a positive light.

The fact remains that cannabis contains harmful components. Prolonged use can raise the risk of drug dependency and mental illness. Studies have indicated that using cannabis can affect cognitive functions over the long term. Everyone should be armed with basic information on the health impact of cannabis use.

Of course, applying criminal penalties alone will not solve the complicated and multifaceted problem of drug abuse and addiction. It is crucial to create effective systems to guide drug abusers toward receiving medical, as well as mental treatment and relapse prevention programs, to enhance support for their social reintegration.

In 2021, prior to the revisions of the laws, a group of experts advising the health ministry discussed the initiative. Three of the 12 members of the group expressed opposition to the proposal to create the use offense.

The report produced by the group cited reasons for concerns and reservations about the proposal. It noted that the legal change would go against “the international trend of focusing on recovery support for drug abusers,” adding that “punishment by criminal penalties could deepen the isolation of abusers and promote their stigmatization.”

During statements given by unsworn witnesses about the matter at the Diet, the representative of an organization working on addiction issues voiced concerns about the initiative. Those concerns were incorporated into the nonbinding supplementary resolution adopted with the enactment of the amendments. These opinions deserve serious attention.

Cases of cannabis used have increased noticeably among students. This offers a perfect opportunity to discuss whether criminal punishment is truly appropriate in such cases as it results in a criminal record, even for cases such as trying pot due to peer pressure. 

Some experts argue that mandating participation in education or treatment programs is more effective, so clearly this issue requires further debate.

On the other hand, the revisions to the laws have legalized the use of pharmaceuticals manufactured from cannabis. This is good news for patients and families who need them.

At the same time, foods and cosmetics containing cannabis components not subject to legal regulation are already being sold and are expected to become more widely available.

In the past, there were instances where harmful components were detected in such products. Last year, numerous complaints were made after people ingested gummy candies laced with cannabis.

The health ministry should enhance monitoring and strive to provide accurate and easy-to-understand information about cannabis and its consumption.

–The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 3

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