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Many Asian countries are famous for having harsh drug laws, and Japan is no different. This is not a country to get high while travelling.
Japan’s drug laws are very strict, although not as strict as fellow Asian nations such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and China, where drug offenders can be executed. Japan is not one of the 35 countries that has the death penalty for drug offences – instead the maximum punishment being life imprisonment.
What Japan does have, however, is minimal tolerance for low-level drug possession. For example, while a lot of Western countries have now legalized or decriminalized marijuana, possession of even a small amount of cannabis in Japan can result in a jail term of up to five years. Using or possessing methamphetamine or heroin carries a potential 10-year prison sentence, while for MDMA, cocaine or magic mushrooms the punishment is seven years’ imprisonment.
Japan also has a penalty of up to one year imprisonment and/or a USD $4,000 fine for possession of solvents such as paint thinner. That’s because, rather surprisingly, inhaling solvent fumes is the second most common form of illicit drug use in Japan, after methamphetamines, and more popular than marijuana.
Unlike most Western countries, Japan’s drug laws do not make a distinction between drug possession for personal use or for intent to supply, except in the case of marijuana. The most severe drug penalty – life imprisonment - is reserved for the production, exportation or importation of amphetamines or heroin with intent to supply.
Japan’s tough laws have limited, but far from eradicated, recreational drug use in Japan. Of the country’s 125 million people, close to 3% have used illegal drugs in their lives, according to a 2020 study by Keio University and the Japan Advocacy Network for Drug Policy.
That, then, amounts to more than three million people, which at first sounds like a big number. It is a miniscule proportion, however, when compared with countries like the US, Canada, UK and Australia, the latter of which found in a 2019 study that more than 40% of its population had used drugs at some point.
In Australia, as with many Western countries, cannabis is easily the most commonly-consumed “restricted” drug. It was used by three times more Australians than the second-most popular restricted drug (cocaine), according to that study. Whereas in Japan, methamphetamine is comfortably the number one illicit substance. That aforementioned Japanese research found more than 70% of drug arrests in Japan involved methamphetamine.
While cannabis is king in most Western countries, methamphetamine is the most widely used drug in Japan, partly due to a hangover from World War II, according to the above 2020 study. Seeking to make its soldiers alert and fearless, Japan gave its military big supplies of methamphetamine during WWII.
When the war ended, meth use persisted, thanks to large pharmaceutical firms which marketed this highly-addictive stimulant to everyday Japanese people. Six years after WWII finished, the Japanese Government played catch up, banning amphetamines. But it was too late, as many Japanese people were already hooked on meth and supply of this drug was taken over by organised crime groups, who’ve kept funnelling it into Japanese communities ever since.
There were 14,019 drug arrests in Japan in 2017, according to the aforementioned Japanese study. Many of those arrests – about two-thirds – were repeat offenders. Despite Japan’s overall low levels of illicit drug use, its extremely tough drug laws (which heavily favour imprisonment over enforced rehabilitation programs) mean its jails still overflow with drug offenders. About 28% of all new male prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences, that study showed, compared to a whopping 37% of new female prisoners.
Tourists to Japan need to be very careful about bringing prescription drugs into the country. The US embassy in Japan warns on its website that “Many common medications and over-the-counter drugs in the United States are illegal in Japan. It does not matter if you have a valid U.S. prescription for a medicine/drug which is illegal in Japan: if you bring it with you, you risk arrest and detention by the Japanese authorities.”
Travellers who wish to bring medicines into Japan should check the legality of medications on the website of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Stimulant medications, such as those commonly used to treat ADHD – Adderall and Ritalin – are illegal to bring into Japan, even with a prescription.
To bring into Japan a medication that contains narcotics, like codeine, morphine or oxycodone, tourists must show proof of a prescription while applying online for an import allowance from Japan’s Narcotics Control Department. If you intend to bring any medication into Japan, even those not restricted, it is advised to carry your prescription. For basic medications, such as painkillers, antacid, or cold and flu relief, it is probably easier to just purchase them at a pharmacy after you land in Japan.
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