In January, Kenichi Narita, a 30-year old Japanese citizen living in San Francisco, applied for medical asylum in the United States. Narita suffers from Crohn’s disease, an incurable inflammatory bowel disorder that can lead to intestinal fistulae, abscesses and obstruction. Like many people with painful and chronic illnesses, Narita has rejected complicated, costly and unreliable drug regimens and has turned instead to marijuana.
Widely considered a legitimate and effective alternative treatment for Crohn’s, marijuana has been responsible for providing relief to Narita and thousands of others. The results—not to mention the studies, testimonials and prescriptions of doctors the world over—speak for themselves. Why, then, is the Japanese government not listening?
The most obvious reason is that cannabis, in all its forms, is illegal in Japan. And not just outlawed, but seriously stigmatized. Remember the winter of 2009, when a handful of celebrity pot busts were enough to splash bong water across the pages of the Japanese dailies? In such a hysterical anti-weed climate, why would the Japanese government rethink their stance on pot, medicinal or not?
Two reasons. First, Japan’s marijuana laws are not their own. The Cannabis Control Act, implemented by the U.S. in 1948 to legitimize its own anti-pot legislation, is in direct opposition to hundreds of years of cannabis use in Japan. No, the Japanese weren’t sitting around, red-eyed and playing Ben Harper songs on a shamisen, but they were making clothing, rope and bowstrings from hemp and using cannabis in Shinto ceremonies. The harsh view of marijuana in Japan is the result of the American laws; it was never the impetus behind them. If the U.S. has so radically changed its own stance on medicinal marijuana, shouldn’t Japan follow suit?
Second, in a country turned nightly into a beer- and shochu-fueled pukescape, only the most adorably ignorant would say marijuana is more harmful than alcohol. Which causes more violence? Or disease and depression? Which is the true gateway drug to impaired driving? To unprotected sex?
There is a wealth of documentation — legitimate, scientific and often government-sanctioned — available for anyone curious about the current medical view of pot. None of the information you will find, however, has its origin in Japan. You would think that in a country where everyone lives to be 200, it would be in the medical establishment’s best interest to follow the rest of the world’s lead and examine pot as both an analgesic and a cure to numerous ailments. But no.
In this case, “marijuana is illegal” does not hold up. An international treaty known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs states: “A Party shall… prohibit the production, manufacture, export and import of, trade in, possession or use of any such drug except for amounts which may be necessary for medical and scientific research only, including clinical trials.” Therefore, it stands that any government which refuses to test marijuana, which refuses to acknowledge its proven benefits, which refuses to alleviate the pain of its citizens, is doing so by choice.
Perhaps an immovable obstacle to progress on the medicinal marijuana question in Japan is the reluctance to publicly discuss health matters, especially those serious and sad. Suffering is often done in silence, and sharing the details can be considered anything from indiscrete to weak. Illness is a private, personal issue here, and that’s not soon to change.
But the feeling is quite the opposite in Western societies, most notably the U.S. Illness is far from taboo; the afflicted are often the most vocal advocates for change. Medicinal marijuana, stem cell research, even reproductive rights and the rights of terminally ill patients to end their lives — any progress made on medical issues during the past two decades began with people acknowledging that sickness should not mean isolation, that suffering and the struggle to live are universal.
Also universal: science. In light of the current, overwhelmingly positive medical view on the therapeutic and restorative effects of marijuana, the Japanese government owes it to its citizens — the millions sick now and the millions who will be in the future — to at least test the theories that so many of the world’s medical professionals now stand behind. Rejecting medical science; that’s ignorance. Arbitrarily clinging to antiquated legislation you have the power to change; that’s incompetence. But ignoring the suffering of your own citizens, citizens like Kenichi Narita?
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).