At least 77 people have been delivered to hospitals in Tokyo this year after smoking "legal herbs" that have the same hallucinatory and stimulatory effects as illegal drugs, figures gathered by the Mainichi have shown.
The dried herbs are mixed with synthesized drugs and sold legally as incense or air fresheners, but they can excite the central nervous system and produce hallucinations if smoked -- and in some cases cause serious health damage.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has made lists of chemical constituents that affect the central nervous system, and restricts their importation, production and sale. However, new varieties are constantly appearing and controls to keep up with these varieties are falling behind -- prompting authorities to consider a blanket ban.
In an investigation into the use of such herbs, the Mainichi made inquiries with all 102 police stations under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), and compiled figures on the number of people who were taken to hospitals from January to April 20 this year following emergency calls, apparently suffering the side effects of smoking such herbs.
Altogether, 65 men and 12 women were taken to hospital. Ten of them were in their teens, 39 were in their 20s, 16 were in their 30s, 10 were in their 40s, and two were in their 50s. Young people in their teens and 20s accounted for 63.6 percent of the cases. While some people lost consciousness or suffered convulsions and were hospitalized, most people's symptoms were light. However on April 20, an unemployed man from Yokohama died, apparently after drinking and then smoking some quantity of a "legal herb." The death came on the heels of an incident in February in which a 24-year-old restaurant worker from Nagoya who smoked a legal herb also died.
"They (legal herbs) started being imported about two years ago after becoming popular in the United Kingdom, and now they are produced both domestically and overseas," said a representative of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's pharmaceutical affairs division. "The term 'herb' gives the false impression that it is not dangerous, and young people's resistance to them has grown weak. It's feared they could become a source of drug abuse."
Under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, such legal herbs containing drug constituents must not be sold for the purpose of being taken into the body, like cigarettes. However, the regulations do not extend to products sold as incense or air fresheners. Because of this, say investigative sources, many stores sell them with the tacit understanding that customers will smoke them.
"In many cases, the make-up of the synthetic drugs in legal herbs is not clear-cut. In some cases they can cause serious health damage or even death," a representative of the MPD's life and environment section said.
Since 2007, the health ministry has listed 68 drug constituents as designated drugs, and has limited their production and sale. However, some substances have been chemically altered to avoid restrictions, creating a game of cat and mouse.
The ministry is now considering introducing blanket restrictions, and plans to add substances that are restricted overseas to its list of designated drugs subject to domestic restrictions before they start circulating in Japan.
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