Taima (cannabis) is asa (hemp), a plant that has been grown in Japan longer than rice. Many places are named after the hemp that was grown in the past. Before Meji-era industrialization and cotton imports, most Japanese wore hemp linen. Washi (Japanese paper), bow strings, sandal straps, ropes, twine and mosquito nets were all made from hemp. Shichimi for ramen noodles still contains hemp seeds. In Japan cannabis was a common medicine until 50 years ago. It is one of the most versatile plants known to man and could replace many pertroleum-based made-made chemicals.
Cannabis (along with rice) is important in the Shinto religion where it means purity. It is believed to ward off evil. Hemp fibre is used in many ceremonies and shrines. Hemp is used for bell ropes or ropes strung across the entrances of shrines. Priests wear hemp clothes. The sun goddess is the goddess of hemp and rice. At Ise shrine near Nagoya, the main shrine of the Imperial family, so-called taima ceremonies are performed several times per year. When the current emperor ascended to the throne he planted rice and hemp, like all Japanese emperors before him. Hemp seeds are used in Shinto weddings. In medieval Japan people used to travel with hemp leaves to be used as ritual offerings. Hemp leaves were burnt during the o-bon festival and various o-matsuri.
The Japanese Cannabis Control Law is an American law. It was only passed when Japan had lost its sovereignty in the surrender that followed the atomic bombs. The 1948 cannabis law was written by the US military which banned it only because it had recently become illegal in America. Unlike opium and tobacco, Taima had never before been prohibited under any Japanese law.
The cannabis control law does not prohibit cannabis use. However, it requires people who possess, grow or distribute cannabis to hold a taima license. People do not get arrested for smoking cannabis but for possession of taima without a license. Leaves, flowers and resin of cannabis plants are considered taima but not fibre and seeds. The maximum penalty for unlicensed possession is five years in prison while the maximum penalty for unlicensed cultivation, import or sale is seven years.
It is still possible to legally grow and possess cannabis in Japan. Governors of prefectures can issue cannabis licenses. There were 102 licensed cannabis farmers in Japan in 1999. Many more people grow or possess it illegally. International drug laws do not require signatory states to send people to prison for cannabis. The current licensing system could be expanded to issue cultivation and possession permits to users.
Maybe 700,000 people use taima in Japan now and 2 million people have tried it in the past. There are not enough prison cells to hold even one tenth of all current marijuana users in Japan. In 1995 there were 1555 marijuana arrests in Japan and 72% of those arrested were under 30. In 1999 about 550 kg of cannabis was seized in Japan, a six-fold increase from 1998.
Marijuana is safer: Young people like to experiment and most of those who try marijuana would soon grow out of it again, as they do in Holland. Because marijuana is not easily obtainable in Japan young people try solvents ("shinna", one of the most harmful drugs) and 2.2 million Japanese use "shabu" (methamphetamine). They risk AIDS and Hepatitis C from shared needles. Japanese men have one of the highest smoking rates in the world and lung cancer has become the leading form of cancer death amongst men (50,000 deaths per year). The main drugs of abuse in Japan are nicotine, alcohol, amphetamines and solvents and three of these are legal. Scientists say that all of these are more harmful than cannabis. If we compare the dangers we can no longer justify strict laws against marijuana.
Marijuana is a medicine. It can treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, pain, menstrual cramps, the side effects of cancer chemotherapy and AIDS medications, nausea, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression. It has no serious side effects. There are ways to use it that do not involve smoking. It is safe to use as no lethal overdose is possible. The strict regulations intended to prevent recreational use make marijuana almost unobtainable for ill people in Japan who could benefit from it medically.
Marijuana laws will only change if we end the taboo. In Japan people avoid talking about drugs. There is no debate and little knowledge. Somebody needs to fill the void. If we break the silence and educate people about taima then laws can and will change.
People are working for reform. See backside for addresses of activist groups and hemp shops.
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