Japan, one of the world’s strictest and most hostile countries in regard to cannabis, recently took a major step towards reform, potentially providing a major boom for the country’s CBD industry and opening the door for the establishment of a medical cannabis and industrial hemp industry in the country.
In late October 2023, the Japanese government approved a bill seeking to amend its now nearly 75-year-old Cannabis Control Act, seeing it renamed the ‘Law Concerning Regulation of the Cultivation of Cannabis Plants.’
With this bill now being passed by the House of Representatives on November 14, 2023, businesses and investors alike are now looking towards the market as a significant opportunity in the region.
Astrasana Japan’s CEO Chikako Yoshida tells Business of Cannabis the news has driven a feeling of excitement throughout the country’s nascent industry.
The amendment was approved on October 24, with the government stating its intention to enact the amendment ‘within a year of promulgation’.
Weeks later, on November 14, this bill was passed by a majority of members of the ruling party and others at a plenary session of the House of Representatives.
The bill will amend a number of key aspects of the country’s current regulations surrounding cannabis.
Firstly, the revision will mean that pharmaceutical products containing ingredients extracted from cannabis plants can be used domestically.
Under current legislation, pharmaceuticals manufactured from cannabis can only be used in clinical trials, not in medical settings.
In 2019, Japan approved GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex (which was purchased by Jazz Pharmaceuticals for $7.2bn in 2021) for clinical trials in epileptic patients with Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes, and its Phase 3 clinical trials for Epidyolex in Japan started in December 2022.
According to Ms Yoshida, the revision will open up the possibility of a medical cannabis market in Japan, marking a significant shift in attitudes towards cannabis from the government.
CBD and industrial hemp
Another key change could have a significant impact on Japan’s already booming CBD market, is in relation to how other cannabinoid products are defined.
Currently, CBD and other hemp-derived products can be imported and sold in Japan as long as there are no observable levels of THC and crucially, it has been derived through ‘stalks and seeds’.
This means that there is already a booming CBD market in Japan, with edibles, topicals and vape products widely sold throughout the country.
It is estimated that there are between 120 and 150 companies that either import, manufacture or distribute a range of CBD products in the country, with sales channels including online stores, online marketplaces like Rakuten and Amazon Japan, department stores, speciality retailers and wellness boutiques.
Following the amendment, it is understood that products derived from the flower, leaves or resin will be able to be imported into Japan legally, as long as they contain under the newly defined limit of THC.
Japan’s Lower House passed a bill to legalize medical products made from cannabis, while clarifying the nation’s ban on the use of other types of marijuana. https://t.co/FOWvQT1tsI
— The Japan Times (@japantimes) November 14, 2023
Another key change will see THC be categorised as a narcotic under the Narcotics and Psychotropic Control Act. Amendments will also effectively close a loophole in the Cannabis Control Act, which does not contain a specific reference to the ‘use’ of cannabis, but imposes strict punishments on anyone found to be importing, exporting, cultivating, transferring or possessing cannabis products.
Opposition parties, citizens groups and organisations oppose the reclassification of cannabis use as a crime, as it will go against the trend of global drug policy where the conceptualisation has shifted from criminalisation to harm reduction.
Left leaning political party Reiwa Shinsengumi, led by Representative Taro Yamamoto, which opposed the amendments to the Cannabis Control Law, said that while they support the lifting of the ban on cannabis for medicinal purposes, there was a ‘serious problem’ with the creation of the new criminal offences.
“What previously had no penalties will now be harshly punished, with a maximum of seven years in prison. I opposed the bill because there is a serious problem here.”
Furthermore, over the coming months, the government is expected to define what level of THC will be permitted in the cannabis derived products.
As Japan is currently wholly reliant on CBD imports, this amendment is likely to open up the market for manufacturers.
Ms Yoshida said that this will further increase the confidence and encourage more investors into the market.
Japan’s reliance on imports could also soon be about to change under this new amendment, which also stipulates that the government will establish a framework to promote hemp cultivation in Japan.
In this vein, the government is set to increase the number of cultivation licences in the country by changing the current Cannabis Control Act to the Law Concerning Regulation of the Cultivation of Cannabis Plants, Japan will issue two types of grower licences.
One will enable farmers to grow and harvest industrial hemp, the other will allow for the production of cannabis destined for medical or pharmaceutical use. The first licence is already available while the second licence is newly introduced in the country.
Japan has a long history of growing hemp, which has historically been used in producing fabrics, seasoning food, and for religious practices.