Today the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) officially added cannabis-derived HHCH to Japan’s “designated drug” list. The move comes after a nationwide series of health incidents caused by consuming HHCH gummies last month.
A new drug law
The move comes after MHLW conducted on-site inspections last week in numerous cities, including Osaka where officials immediately halted sales at the manufacture and retail company WWE on the 20th.
A ban on the substance will come into effect next month on December 2nd, from thereon making it illegal to manufacture, sell, possess, use, purchase, and transfer HHCH under the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Laws.
Violators of the law are punishable by a maximum of three years in prison or a fine of up to ¥3 million ($20,000 USD) or both.
What is HHCH?
HHCH, or hexahydrocannabihexol, is a synthetic substance with a structure like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC in marijuana that can cause hallucinations and memory impairment.
THC is subject to the Cannabis Control Law and other regulations. On the other hand cannabidiol (CBD), a less harmful component of marijuana, is not. Japan’s CBD market is set to expand as forecasts predict it to reach more than ¥80 billion ($600 million USD) by 2025.
Marijuana has been banned in Japan since the end of World War II, a lasting consequence of the Allied occupation. Many in the country still use the drug, leading to the occasional over-the-top prevention campaign.
Shifts in law and market
Talks to regulate HHCH sped up this week when MHLW officials held an emergency expert panel on Tuesday.
The meeting came a week after Japan’s lower House passed a bill to legalize medical products made from cannabis. The bill simultaneously reclassifies marijuana under the Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Act from its former regulation under the Cannabis Control Law. That change increases violators’ jail time from a maximum of five years to seven.
Coincidentally, on the same day, November 14th, the New-York based CBD wellness company Cüre announced its launch in Japan. It’s partnering with Hirokazu Yamamura, CEO of AJP Co Ltd., and Outside Director of Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan Holdings Inc.
The gummy victims
“It felt like my head was swaying after an hour of eating [HHCH gummies],” said a male 32, who purchased the gummies at a store Tokyo’s Toshima Ward in early October.
Similar reports including emergency hospital visits from physical discomfort have emerged in cities Tokyo, Osaka, and Hokkaido. Twelve people were transported to hospitals in Tokyo alone since October, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.
Most recently, two men in their twenties received hospital care on November 11th after becoming ill from the gummies. They had purchased them from a store in Susukino, Japan’s largest entertainment district north of Tokyo in Sapporo City.
One packet containing ten gummies sells for ¥7 thousand in a Shibuya Ward store. The owner says they “warn customers of the risks. For those with low tolerance, one [gummy] is enough to cause harm. I recommend people eat a little at a time.”
Hindering mental health treatment?
Intensifying the punishment for drug use is counter-effective to underlying mental health issues, says Professor Iida Akihito, an expert in criminal psychology at Hokusho University in Hokkaido.
“Those who want to experiment [with cannabis-derived snacks] are often people who have a lot of anxiety. Instead of condemning people for consuming such drugs, [officials] should consider how to safely guide those people to medical institutions.”
Japan, whose drug laws are among the world’s harshest, has seen a crackdown on marijuana use among student-athletes at prominent universities this year, as well as busts of illegal manufacturers.
Last year, the Tokai Hokuriku MHLW Bureau’s Narcotics Control Department arrested four men in their teens and twenties for cultivating cannabis they grew in their own apartments. They are also charged with using the plant to make and sell marijuana cookies to about 2,500 clients over social media.
 “大麻グミ”札幌でも健康被害が繁華街「ススキノ」の複数の店舗で流通…厚生労働省は規制強化へ. FNNプライムオンライン
 ‘Cannabis gummy’ illnesses lead to ban on THC-like drug. The Asahi Shimbun
 「大麻グミ」大阪の製造会社にも販売停止命令 厚労省立ち入り. 産経新聞
 HHCH指定薬物に 12月2日には販売 所持・使用が禁止 横浜など全国各地の店舗立ち入り検査 厚労省NHK. 首都圏ナビ
 大麻グミ、食べた会社員は「酒を一気に飲んだ感覚」で翌日まで不快感…あすにも規制薬物へ. 読売新聞
 医療法大麻の解禁、改正法案提出へ 大麻使用材は7年以下の懲役. 朝日新聞