Japan may very soon ban hexahydrocannabihexol (HHCH) and other synthetic cannabinoid derivatives.

The move could come shortly after the country’s first medical cannabis regulation bill passed its initial parliamentary scrutiny, which in itself many experts in the sector have considered a milestone achievement and a sign of a major cultural change in a country that has traditionally taken a very strong stance against drugs.

While commenting on the new law, which was approved by the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Japanese parliament) earlier this month and is expected to go through the House of Councillors (the upper house) next year, the government made it clear the scope of the law was not exactly just regulating the use of tested medical cannabis drugs.

Chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told local press: “The bill will help us crack down on the illicit use and possession of cannabis and prevent its abuse.”

And he wasn’t joking. The new law will criminalise the use of recreational cannabis by including it on the list of prohibited substances under the country’s Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Law. Currently only sale and possession are illegal under the 1948 Cannabis Control Law.

Other synthetic substances may be banned even before the new law comes into effect or is debated by the House of Councillors. Health minister Keizo Takemi said in a press conference that HHCH will soon be listed as a psychoactive drug and its distribution, possession and use prohibited across the country.

The government took action after five people of different ages who had consumed HHCH gummies, reportedly distributed at a festival in Tokyo, required medical attention.

Following this incident, which happened in early November, authorities reportedly started tightening the reins on manufacturers and stores, conducting inspections and ordering the suspension of product sales.

 

Too restrictive to be a big step forward?

 

At the same time, the new bill legalising the use of approved cannabis-based medical drugs is so restrictive it would only apply to Epidiolex, the CBD drug already in use in the EU, the UK, and the US – where it was the first of its kind to get a green light from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

So why has this law been interpreted by many as a major step in Japan’s path towards a less conservative approach to cannabis?

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    Within the international medical cannabis sector, it is understandable that UK-headquartered Jazz Pharmaceuticals, whose subsidiary GW Pharmaceuticals is the maker of Epidiolex, welcomed developments in regulating the use of its drug, which entered the third phase of clinical trials in Japan at the end of 2022.

    Jazz Pharmaceuticals told CannIntelligence that it considered the passing of the new bill by the country’s House of Representatives as “a critical step to enable access to cannabinoid-based medicines for patients with significant unmet medical need in Japan”.

    However, the drug, which is used to treat seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, Dravet syndrome, or tuberous sclerosis complex, is currently the only cannabis medicine expected to be permitted by the new law when it comes into force.

    Some experts have warned against considering the bill as a broader medical cannabis law, which may push potential investors and companies in the sector into misplacing their hopes and their capital.

     

    Signs of a shift in perspective over cannabis

     

    Even within the recreational cannabis space, some foreign operators have reacted with optimism to the simple fact that the bill will make the final stage of parliament voting, saying they believed this was only possible because Japanese society is experiencing a change in mentality and becoming less conservative when it comes to cannabis consumption.

    The detail that the law also got cross-party support may be interpreted as a sign of this societal shift towards legalising cannabis in some of its forms, which would make peace with what proponents say is a long history of employing the plant for a variety of uses.

    Although THC cannot be sold legally in Japan, CBD products, mostly imported, have become increasingly popular, and local trade organisations have been pushing for law changes to allow for the development of a local market.

    It remains to be seen whether this bill will pass its final scrutiny and then lead to new, more consistent opportunities.

    – Tiziana Cauli CannIntelligence staff

    Photo: Jezael Melgoza

    Tiziana Cauli

    Senior reporter
    Tiziana is an Italian journalist from Sardinia. She has worked for both international and local media in Italy, South Africa, France, Spain, the UK, Lebanon and Belgium. She also worked as a communications manager for several international NGOs in the humanitarian sector.