There is officially no legal access to medicinal cannabis in Japan. In that respect, this country – with a rich cannabis history – is far behind other countries. However, CBD products are allowed through a loophole.
Cannabis actually has a long history in Japan, dating back to prehistoric times. Fibers and hemp seeds have been discovered in the remains of human settlements from the Jomon period (10.000 BC to 300 BC).
Cannabis History and Shintoism
Throughout history, hemp was a widespread crop and played an important role in everyday life. People wore clothes made of hemp, used hemp ropes in various ways, worked hemp paper, ate seeds and made oil. Hemp fields were plentiful across the country.
In addition to its practical uses, hemp was also revered as a sacred plant in Shintoism and is still used in various ceremonies. The plant was also considered a medicine. It was listed in the pharmacopoeia and prescribed to treat asthma, relieve pain and improve sleep, among other things. Cannabis tinctures and smoking products were widely available in pharmacies and advertised in newspapers.
Narcotic Control act
This all changed when Japan lost World War II and the United States forced the country to ban cannabis altogether, as part of the Narcotic Control Act. Japanese hemp farmers – there were more than 50.000 at the time – protested. So the Japanese government negotiated with the US occupying army and managed to separate cannabis from the rest of the narcotics.
They were also able to get a legal exemption allowing adult hemp plant seeds under the Cannabis Control Act. This ban, enacted in 1948, has been dictating Japanese cannabis policy for nearly 75 years without review or change.
In 1948, no one in the world knew you got high from THC. No one knew we had an endocannabinoid system in our bodies. No one knew the scientific basis for how cannabis can help people with a wide variety of conditions, which we largely understand today. Science advanced. The Japanese Cannabis Control Act was simply imposed on Japan and the Japanese followed it through their unprecedented respect for authority. However, it seems that change is imminent.
Growth of CBD market
In 2013, hemp-derived CBD products started trickling into Japan. Due to the loophole in the Cannabis Control Act, CBD products are legal to import and use as long as the manufacturer certifies that they are produced from mature hemp stems and do not contain detectable THC. Despite this absurd claim, the CBD market has shown steady growth, especially after 2019.
Green Zone Japan, an organization founded in 2017 by a Japanese doctor, helped a 6-month-old boy with Ohtahara syndrome (early infantile epileptic encephalopathy) obtain therapeutic doses of a CBD product currently on the Japanese market . The boy's attacks stopped!
Approval of Epidiolex?
This sparked a lot of interest among Japanese families who have children with epilepsy. As a result, the number of clinical trials grew. The drug slated for clinical trials is Epidiolex, pharmaceutical CBD produced by GW Pharma in the UK and approved as a treatment for severe pediatric epilepsy in many countries, including the United States. The Japanese entity of GW Pharma, which was established for this purpose, has made a formal application to conduct an Epidiolex study and it has been approved by the Ministry of Health. But the clinical trial was slow to get off the ground.
Yes, it is only Epidiolex, a CBD isolate, and yes, it is only for persistent epilepsy. Nevertheless, the government's recognition of the potential therapeutic benefits of a cannabis derivative is a great first step towards legalizing medicinal cannabis in Japan.
Uncertainty about legislation
In January 2021, Japan's Ministry of Health announced its intention to review the Cannabis Control Act. If the clinical trial of Epidiolex is successful, the law should be changed. The reform is expected to be addressed at the Ordinary Parliament meeting in 2023.
There is much confusion in a country where the illegal use of cannabis for recreational and/or therapeutic purposes is so limited (cannabis-related arrests in Japan totaled just over a paltry 5400 in 2021). Some people just don't understand that it is possible to use cannabis medicinally. When they hear that medical cannabis is legal in 37 states in the US, many Japanese think it means doctors are giving cannabis to patients in hospitals.
Still others have the impression that medicinal cannabis refers exclusively to Epidiolex. Indeed, the majority of Japanese are unaware of the difference between state-run “medical cannabis programs” and the unregulated rural hemp-derived CBD market. There is still a long way to go before there is a solid medical cannabis program in Japan, but the first step is now being taken.
Source: www.projectcbd.org (EN)