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Hemp advocates fear Japan’s new cannabis panel will remain stuck in past

Japan's drug laws date to U.S. occupation after World War II.Japan's drug laws date to U.S. occupation after World War II.
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Hemp advocates in Japan have sharply criticized plans for a newly formed cannabis control agency they say looks poised to continue strict regulations that conflate industrial hemp with marijuana.

The country’s leading hemp advocacy group, the Hokkaido Industrial Hemp Association (HIHA), issued an urgent statement last week criticizing an initial overview of the “Investigative Commission on Measures for the Control of Cannabis and Other Drugs,” a panel being formed which the Association fears will be focused strictly on criminalization of cannabis use to the exclusion of developing industrial hemp.

“In order to develop a hemp industry on par with those overseas and protect national interests concerning industrial hemp, this country must revise the Cannabis Control Act and other related laws as soon as possible, position the hemp industry appropriately within the legal system, and strike a balance between the control of drugs and the encouragement of industry,” the HIHA said in the four-page statement.

Drug law ironies

Japan’s Cannabis Control Act, which was established under American occupation in 1948, and is based on the notorious U.S. Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, comprises laws that are among the most restrictive in the world. Under current regulations only the stem and seeds of low-THC hemp plants may be used to manufacture products, while marijuana is banned outright and severely punished with incarceration, even though there is no THC limit indicated in the law. Imports of hemp products made from leaves and flowers are also illegal, as are hemp planting seed imports, which hampers research, HIHA suggested.

“In comparison with the legal systems of other countries such as the U.S., where the legalization of medical and even recreational cannabis has gained traction, we cannot help but describe Japan’s Cannabis Control Act as considerably outdated,” the HIHA states.

‘Unreasonable’

The Association said prohibiting use of hemp flowers and leaves is a fundamental barrier to the development of a full-fledged hemp industry. “It is unreasonable to prohibit the use of flowers or leaves not containing THC, and this element of the law should be abolished,” the Association writes in the statement.

The Hokkaido Industrial Hemp Association, led by Japanese hemp veteran Harumi Kikuchi, started in 2013. The Association supports trials and research and development initiatives in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture, where the local government’s Agriculture Administration Division has an established expert commission that has been studying hemp since 2014.

Mistaken perceptions

By focusing on criminalization, the Commission’s work “could spread the mistaken impression among Japanese citizens that the cannabis plant is a dangerous drug and foster bias against it, even though it is a valuable crop with traditional and cultural significance that has been used in Japan since the Jomon period (14,000–300 BC),” the HIHA said.

In addition to setting a clear legal framework for hemp, HIHA also said the Commission should serve as “an opportunity for holding a democratic debate concerning medical and recreational cannabis that touches on humanitarian considerations, scientific expertise, and international shifts in attitude.”

Study group named

A 12-person “study group on drug countermeasures for cannabis” has been named to the Commission, including representatives of the legal profession, non-profit organizations, university research programs, pharmaceutical companies and mental health agencies.

HIHA suggested the Commission study group should include representation from Japan’s agriculture sector, and should reach out to draw expertise internationally from hemp experts in farming, processing, logistics and marketing, as well as consumers and health care patients.

Based on initial guidelines for the Commission released recently, HIHA further suggested:

  • The Commission should take up the matter of cannabis under Article 1 of the Cannabis Control Act, and expand and refine definitions for low-THC industrial hemp. Hemp varieties should be classified according to THC content and end use, with separate regulations developed for each category. HIHA noted that such discussion was not indicated in plans for the Commission’s work.
  • Industrial hemp should be defined as cannabis plants containing less than a 0.3% THC, and should be treated as a common agricultural product.
  • An existing licensing system for permitting hemp that is maintained by prefectural governors should stay in place, but standards for licensing should be clarified to allow any entities that meet basic requirements to be eligible for licenses. “The national government should refrain from interference in the licensing procedures of prefectural governors,” HIHA recommended.
  • Regulations concerning industrial hemp should be the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which should implement measures promoting industrial hemp as a national responsibility. The Ministry should also engage in research on the development of hemp varieties, cultivation methods, and potential end uses.
  • Trade regulations should be revised to permit the import of seeds for hemp varieties from other countries, and should be exempted from heat treatment upon import.
  • The preparation of laws concerning medical cannabis should be accelerated, and should avoid excessive regulations for those products that would hinder the advancement of industrial hemp.

HIHA’s 70 members are individual hemp advocates, companies and other organizations. The Association runs an ongoing “Campaign to Re-Open Japan for Hemp,” and has a goal to establish 20,000 ha of hemp fields in Hokkaido prefecture. HIHA also cooperates with national and regional hemp trade organizations from all over the world on policy and development initiatives.

READ: Full HIHA statement

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