The straw-colored drug, sold in sleek vape cases, looks strikingly similar to the cannabis oil Hiro has tried abroad. When it’s smoked, he said the difference is even harder to tell.
“I can’t believe I can get this high in Japan, and I’m not breaking the law,” the 24-year-old man in Tokyo said of smoking THC-O, a hemp derivative that contains a chemical similar to the high-inducing substance in weed. He requested the use of a pseudonym because he’s worried about the legal repercussions of using the unregulated substance.
In Japan, possessing anything with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is illegal and punishable by a minimum sentence of five years in prison.
But synthetic cannabis compounds—like what Hiro smokes in Japan—aren’t banned. So long as they are THC-free, products made from cannabis stems and stalks can be imported as oils or food. Thanks to this loophole, synthetic cannabinoids that give similar or even greater highs than THC’s are flying under the radar and into Japanese pockets.
Authorities are slowly catching on, but attempts to ban THC-like substances have quickly turned into a game of whack-a-mole.
In March, the Japanese government banned HHC, a synthetic cannabis compound that became trendy late last year after a rapper promoted it. But HHC’s long line of cousins—THC-O, HHC-O, THCV, and 9beta—soon emerged to take HHC’s place among Japanese users, highlighting the challenge of drug regulation in a country that sees weed as a “gateway” to harder substances.
Weed advocates blame this cannabis free-for-all on the government’s strict ban on THC, which they say is pushing people to try derivatives that are more potent and dangerous than weed products that have been consumed and studied for a much longer time.
“Since everything is made underground, there’s no structure to the way it’s made—it’s like moonshine,” Yuji Masataka, a doctor of internal medicine and a representative of the pro-cannabis research group Green Zone Japan, told VICE World News, referring to the unregulated production of THC-like substances.
Though comparatively little is known about THC-O—one of the emerging synthetic cannabinoids also known as THC-O acetate—some weed sellers claim that it’s about three times more potent than THC and also gives a borderline psychedelic high.
Synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to strokes, delusion, and heart attacks. U.S. lawmakers have already raised the alarm, with 17 states banning synthetic cannabinoids in the past year. In 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration in the U.S. also clarified that synthetically derived substances, like THC-O, were effectively illegal except when they are used for research.
A representative of beHIGHnd, a company that sells products containing CBD, a nonintoxicating extract from the marijuana plant, fears these potential risks are lost on new users.
He recalls how just 10 years ago, users were infatuated with another quasi-cannabis called dappo habu, literally meaning “loophole herb.” Similar to K2 found in the U.S., the synthetic marijuana got people high—dangerously so.
In 2014, right in the midst of the dappo habu boom, a Japanese driver suspected to be high on the drug drove onto a sidewalk, killing a pedestrian and injuring seven more. Two weeks later, another driver who appeared to be under the influence of the drug crashed and injured three people in Tokyo.
But a THC-O seller who goes by the name “Joint boy” said it was too early to write off THC-O as a dangerous substance.
“I’ve used it myself, my friends have tried it too, and there have been no complaints about its dangers,” he told VICE World News, requesting the use of his pseudonym because his employer is unaware of his side business. He conceded, however, that he could not guarantee its safety.
“To be honest, I say at your own risk,” he said.
Some users of synthetic marijuana for medicinal purposes fear that abuse of THC-like substances could invite a blanket crackdown that would deprive them of remedies that relieve conditions such as anxiety and insomnia. Sellers estimate that tens of thousands of Japanese people regularly use these chemicals.
Masahiro Tajimi, a 30-year-old who works in construction, knows the risks involved in taking THC-O. But he swears by its effectiveness in treating his depression.
“My life’s become richer—I can now eat more and watch movies on the weekends,” things he couldn’t do when he struggled with anxiety and a poor appetite, he told VICE World News.
Saki Furoiwa, 34, similarly started taking synthetic cannabinoids to treat her severe insomnia and anxiety. She regularly used HHC until the government made it illegal in March.
“It was frustrating and made me very angry that something I was doing for my own health suddenly became a criminal offense,” she told VICE World News.
After the ban, she has strictly stuck to taking CBD and its derivatives. She has stayed away from THC-O, citing its potential risks.
Though legalization doesn’t seem to be on the government’s horizon, the public attitude toward cannabis in Japan is slowly shifting.
According to a government survey, 1.4 percent of the country’s population has tried weed, more than double the number from 10 years ago. Japan is also witnessing the beginning of a “green rush,” with citizens taking CBD for its supposed medicinal benefits. By 2024, the CBD market is estimated to grow to $800 million in Japan. CBD cafes, health shops, convenience stores, and vending machines that sell these products are already popping up in cities.
But the government appears intent to continue playing a game of cat and mouse. On Tuesday, it announced a ban on another synthetic cannabinoid, Cumyl-CBMICA, giving users until July 8 to get rid of their supply. Since last June, the government has also indicated that it’d strengthen its ban on cannabis use, with revisions expected as early as this year.
Hiro, the 24-year-old THC-O user in Tokyo, said he would play the government at their game. Even if the authorities banned the substance, he’d venture into other similar drugs he could get his hands on—legally.
“I guess if the government really bans every possible drug I can smoke, I’ll reconsider my habit—or go abroad,” he said.