TOKYO -- Marijuana arrests are soaring in Japan, causing a public sensation in a nation where illegal-drug use is relatively rare.
What has made the wave of arrests especially shocking to some Japanese is numerous drug busts involving the country's elite -- professional athletes, doctors and students at top universities -- who are expected to act as exemplary citizens.
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Last month, a 25-year-old sumo wrestler known as Wakakirin was arrested in Roppongi, a Tokyo neighborhood known for its bars and clubs, for alleged marijuana possession. The sumo association dismissed him, likely ending his career as a wrestler. In a letter presented to the association by his father and his manager, the wrestler, whose real name is Shinichi Suzuki, apologized and said he would decline a retirement bonus to which he is entitled. Mr. Suzuki didn't return calls seeking comment.
In the past, the drug arrests that got attention in Japan usually involved dealers of heroin and cocaine in cases linked to organized crime.
But last year, police reported 3,793 arrests for alleged marijuana use, up 16% from the previous year and nearly double the number a decade ago. About 70% of those arrested were under the age of 30.
While Japan has been known for its tolerance of cigarette smoking and public drunkenness, the nation has long had some of the strictest laws against marijuana-related offenses. Those convicted for possessing marijuana face prison terms of up to five years, though first-time offenders are usually given suspended sentences. In contrast, in most parts of the U.S., possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor typically punished by a small fine and possibly a short prison stay.
While hard numbers are difficult to come by, marijuana use in Japan appears to be low compared with other countries. In a survey of 85,000 households from 17 countries published last year by the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco and Cambridge, U.K., only 1.5% of Japanese respondents said they have used cannabis, compared with 42% in the U.S. and 18% in Germany.
But obtaining marijuana has become easier and cheaper in Japan in recent years, helped by information on the Internet. And young Japanese who increasingly travel or study abroad sometimes come home with the impression that marijuana is legal, or treated as a misdemeanor, as in many other nations.
"In the past, Japanese people saw marijuana as something scary, as they didn't know what it was," says Sakae Komori, an attorney who has represented a number of people arrested on marijuana-related charges. "Now it has become more accessible as a lot of young people experience it overseas, come home and show others how to use it."
At the same time, police and public-health regulators are putting more emphasis on marijuana as arrests related to hard drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin decline, some legal and government experts say. The number of government narcotic agents, who work closely with police, has been rising by about 10 a year over the past few years to about 250 currently.
"Their main job continues to be combating hard drugs," said an official for the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. "But marijuana-related cases have been increasing."
Japan has its pot libertarians. A Web site run by a group called the Center for Changing the Cannabis Law offers advice on how to answer questions from investigators and where to find lawyers.
But some in Japan are seeking to make the country's 67-year-old cannabis law stricter by closing loopholes created mostly to help growers of hemp, which is often used to make robes worn by Buddhist monks and loincloths worn by sumo wrestlers. Plants that are used to make hemp are closely related to marijuana but contain little or no intoxicating substance.
Japanese employers have come up with strict measures of their own. A number of companies have recently fired people arrested on charges of possessing marijuana.
At Waseda University, an elite private college in Tokyo, six students were arrested last year for breaking the cannabis law, including one student who allegedly grew marijuana in his bathroom. All six were expelled, according to a university spokesman.
"We thought university students had more conscience," said Juichi Shimomura, a director in the bureau of welfare and public health of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. "Now we realize they have to be taught just like everyone else."
Tsubasa Kondo, a senior at Sophia University in Tokyo, says Japanese authorities are giving out "excessive" penalties as preventive actions. "We have to accept it," he says. Still, he says, "possession of marijuana is not like a firearm."
By YUKA HAYASHI
March 4, 2009
Wall Street Journal
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