We all know that Japan’s drug laws are decidedly strict. So it will probably surprise you to learn that crystal meth was originally invented in Japan. Because of this, crystal meth is still the most commonly used illegal drug in Japan. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 80% of drug-related arrests in Japan have involved methamphetamine.

Known as “shabu” in Japanese, methamphetamine was first synthesized from ephedrine by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893. Then in 1919, a Japanese pharmacologist named Akira Ogata performed a reduction on ephedrine creating crystal meth. Japan’s long history with meth has continued ever since.

In Japan today, “using drugs is akin to committing suicide little by little every day,” says Yoji Miura, director of Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC). “So many people have come and gone in my life that my heart has become numb and my tears have dried up.”

In 2013, 12,951 people were arrested in Japan on drug-related charges. Most were charged with the possession or use of stimulants broadly called methamphetamine. It’s virtually impossible to gauge from this figure how many people in the country are currently struggling with an addiction, but the health ministry says the number of arrests is just the tip of the iceberg.

Miura himself is a recovering addict. Bullied as a child for being overweight, he realized his size enabled him to fight back and he began hanging out with a rough crowd. He started sniffing glue to get high but, eventually, started using marijuana and methamphetamine. He was arrested twice before being sentenced to a year in prison.

“When you are first in prison, you think you’re never going to use drugs again because you never want to go back there,” Miura said. “By the time you are released, however, you tell yourself to make sure you’re never caught again.”

That was when Miura was first introduced to DARC.

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Established in Tokyo in 1985, DARC now has 57 branches with 78 facilities all over Japan. Most members live in DARC dormitories and they generally attend two internal meetings and one external Narcotics Anonymous meeting every day. Most employees at each facility are recovering addicts, too.

“DARC is the only place addicts can be honest,” Miura said. “Once you’ve spent time in prison, you have to lie all the time: when you’re looking for a job or a place to live, or meeting new people.”

Stimulants have effectively dominated the domestic drug scene since the end of World War II. Chemist Nagayoshi Nagai first synthesized methamphetamine from ephedrine in 1893, and people would primarily use it to recover from fatigue.

Philopon, produced by Dainippon Pharmaceutical Co. (now Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma), was used as a pick-me-up during World War II for military personnel who needed to stay alert. The name is said to have originated from the Greek word philoponus, which means “he who loves labor.”

Military stocks of the methamphetamine fell into civilian hands in the aftermath of World War II, leading to widespread abuse. At its peak in 1954, police reports estimated there were 550,000 addicts in the country, with around 2 million people having tried the drug at some point in their life.

The Stimulant Control Law was enacted in 1951, banning the production, import, possession or use of methamphetamine across the board. A subsequent police crackdown meant that the number of arrests over the substance fell dramatically from 55,664 in 1954 to 271 in 1958, the lowest number in postwar history. However, stimulants are strongly addictive, and the number of arrests has remained steadily above 10,000 since 1976.

That said, drug use in Japan appears to be significantly lower than the figures reported abroad. According to statistics compiled by the health ministry in February, 0.4 percent of the Japanese population aged between 15 and 64 years old have tried stimulants at least once in their life. In the United States, 5.1 percent of the population over the age of 12 has tried meth at least once. Meanwhile, 41.9 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at least once in their life, compared to 1.2 percent of the Japanese population.

Nobuya Naruse, deputy chief at Saitama Prefectural Psychiatric Hospital, says police in Japan often brag about being extremely vigilant when it comes to drugs but show little interest in treating addicts once they’re caught.

“Japan is very good at regulating drug-related crime — one of the leading nations in the world — and depends on regulation to keep the crime rate down in terms of drug use,” Naruse says. “But that is why it has fallen way behind in terms of the treatment and recovery of addiction.”

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More recently, a new problem is changing the outlook on drugs in the country: “loophole drugs.”

In addition to the Stimulant Control Law, other drug-related legislation includes the Cannabis Control Law, the Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Law and the Opium Law. The Metropolitan Police Department is, ineffectively, using the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law to deal with this new variation of drugs.

Loophole drugs typically include a mixture of chemicals that are not regulated by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law but can have similar effects to illegal drugs such as methamphetamine and marijuana. The possession of these compounds is not strictly illegal, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared war on such law-evading drugs after a recent series of car accidents that were allegedly caused by drivers under the influence of such substances.

Naruse expressed concern over such drugs, which he said were extremely dangerous and difficult to treat because of the complex mixture of substances. Alarmingly, the latest statistics show that the number of patients at Saitama Prefectural Psychiatric Hospital who had been committed in 2013 over an addiction to loophole drugs outnumbered those who had been addicted to methamphetamine for the first time in history.

“(Loophole drugs) drugs have become the most dangerous drug in Japan,” Naruse says. “They are several times more dangerous than methamphetamine and 10 times more effective than marijuana.”

The health ministry says that more than 1,370 chemicals have now been outlawed — a sharp increase from the 68 that had been banned in 2012. But every time the health ministry bans one compound, a new one finds its way onto the market, turning the whole exercise into an endless game of cat-and-mouse for authorities.

Sakae Komori, a lawyer who specializes in drug cases, says the government should speed up the process of outlawing the substances in the first place. A health ministry official said that it typically takes about three to six months to designate a drug.

Komori, however, says that simply speeding up the designation process won’t solve the problem on its own, and governments in Europe and the U.S. are battling similar difficulties.

“As there is a massive global market supporting these synthetic drugs, authorities must be prepared to engage in a prolonged war,” Komori says. “Any series of measures must first look at strengthening the capacity of analyzing and evaluating the drugs.”

With the rapid spread of synthetic drugs as well as the unchanging number of arrests over methamphetamine, authorities are expected to crack down harder.

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Recidivism is also a major headache, with statistics showing that 60 percent of convictions for stimulants are repeat offenders. A 2009 survey compiled by the Justice Ministry shows that 30 percent of suspects convicted for stimulants were jailed again for a related crime.

Naruse, a 20-year veteran on treating drug addicts, says the primary focus needs to shift from penalties to treatment. Naruse says the country’s famous catch phrase, “Dame. Zettai.” (similar to the “Just Say No” campaign in the U.S. in the 1980s) simply doesn’t work anymore.

“Not everyone becomes an addict,” Naruse says. “It is the lonely, people with low self-esteem and have a strong sense of anxiety about being disliked by others who typically become addicted. Publicly attacking people such as Aska is not going to help at all. … These types of people have already lost so much along the way.”

Experts suggest there is already a trend in Western nations to shift away from harsh punishment over “victimless crimes” such as the possession and use of illegal drugs. For example, many drug courts in the U.S. are now part of the diversion program, a type of sentencing that offers offenders a chance to avoid criminal charges.

Komori, who has defended more than 1,000 drug cases, says it probably isn’t realistic to import exactly the same system in the country from the United States. Nevertheless, it’s still an overall objective worth striving for. “Correctional facilities greatly damage the relationship that the offenders have with society and I don’t think it is an appropriate punishment for drug crimes,” Komori says. “I think criminals should be treated within the community.”

In 2013, a revision of the Criminal Law introduced a new option for sentencing narcotics users that offers convicts suspended sentences and probation. Authorities hope the new procedure will allow addicts to be rehabilititated back into society and, ultimately, reduce recidivism.

However, a number of experts say there are not enough private facilities to take care of the former addicts who have spent time behind bars, expressing doubt over whether such a system can be effective in the longer term.

DARC founder Tsuneo Kondo says putting addicts in jail in the first place will not help prevent drug crimes or reduce recidivism.

A recovering addict himself, Kondo expresses frustration that no one seems to understand that addiction is a disease and that Japan’s solution to drug crimes is to put the offenders in prison and then release them, automatically expecting them to stay sober without any additional support.

“Drugs are a sign of pain,” Kondo says. “The pain could come from anywhere — from stress or work or the loss of a loved one — and anyone can become addicted. Once you become an addict, you have to deal with it for the rest of your life.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, take the first step towards recovery with the free Addicaid app for iPhone and Android to join a recovery community today.

[h/t: The Japan Times]

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