The Lower House of Japan approved a bill on Tuesday that aims to legalize medical cannabis, specifically emphasizing the distinction from other forms of marijuana that remain prohibited in the country. The legislation, inclusive of revisions to associated laws, was promptly forwarded to the Upper House. If the Upper House grants approval, the proposed changes are anticipated to take effect by the conclusion of the following year.
The bill is pivotal for the potential acceptance of Epidiolex, a medication containing cannabidiol—a key component of the cannabis plant—which has received approval for treating severe epilepsy in the United States and Europe. Notably, a clinical trial of Epidiolex conducted by GW Pharma is currently underway in Japan.
Introduced by the health ministry, the bill addresses a loophole in the existing 1948 Cannabis Control Law, which prohibits the possession, trade, and cultivation of cannabis but lacks a specific mention of its use. The proposed amendments seek to categorize cannabis as a banned substance under the Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Law, with violations punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment.
During the Lower House's plenary session, lawmakers from various parties, excluding the Japanese Communist Party and Reiwa Shinsengumi, voted in favor of the bill. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno expressed optimism about the legislation's potential impact on patients with intractable epilepsy, emphasizing improved access to medicines derived from the cannabis plant. Simultaneously, Matsuno highlighted the bill's role in curbing illicit cannabis use and possession.
Despite the move toward legalizing medical marijuana, the government maintains its staunch opposition to recreational marijuana use, citing concerns about its perceived role as a “gateway drug” to more potent substances. The bill's passage is expected to reinforce anti-cannabis measures, aligning with the government's zero-tolerance policy.
In a unique historical context, Japan's long-standing tradition of cannabis farming for its fiber is acknowledged, and the cannabis control law historically avoided explicit reference to cannabis use to protect hemp farmers. However, despite this, the government has consistently upheld a stringent approach in practice, evident in recent high-profile arrests related to the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol found in cannabis.
During deliberations in the Lower House’s Health, Labor, and Welfare committee, some expert witnesses contested the criminalization of cannabis use, arguing that such measures disproportionately penalize young offenders and hinder their reintegration into society. While the bill ultimately cleared the committee through a majority vote, a resolution was appended, urging the government to establish a support system offering drug abuse prevention education, rehabilitation, and job-hunting assistance for those affected.
This story was first published by Japan Times.