“Customer growth is stronger now compared to immediately after the quake,” said G, an organized crime group affiliate familiar with the illegal drug market. The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 proved there was a good post-disaster market for illegal drugs among temporary housing residents and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, dealers from major urban centers swiftly loaded up and headed north to disaster-afflicted areas in the Tohoku region in search of quick profits.
According to G, “First on the scene were the stimulant drug pushers who began selling out of their cars on the back streets and in pachinko (pinball) parlor parking lots. Customers were wide-ranging, from high school students and young bar hostesses to grandfathers and grandmothers. Inferior grades of speed which couldn’t be sold in Tokyo and Osaka were offloaded there.”
However, these dealers soon found demand for their wares quickly tapering off. Though there is still a distribution route to the Tohoku region, nowadays very few outside dealers are going out of their way to specifically set up shop in the disaster-hit areas. The primary reason for this is that local area pushers up and down the Tohoku coast who had been servicing the market for stimulants among port and fishing industry workers before the quake were reestablishing themselves.
“There is a sort of urban legend going around that dealers from outside the region were rounded up and taken by boat to be dumped in the water inside the silt fence (designed to prevent the spread of contaminates) set up just offshore of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The probable truth, however, is unrelated to the earthquake. More than likely demand fell because technically legal hallucinatory herbs began to gain popularity among the region’s youth and the number of shops selling them in Sendai increased,” said G.
As the market for stimulants returns to normal, demand is rapidly growing for a different type of drug: prescription sedatives and sleeping pills.
“There have always been people dealing stimulants in Tohoku, but before the quake there wasn’t much of a market for sedatives. Compared to speed, sleeping pills are much cheaper,” explained G. "And, there are a lot of users because they are not illegal to take (unlike stimulants, where a person can be arrested for use if tests show the drug is in their system, even if they do not have any actual stimulant in their possession). Additionally, people addicted to sleeping pills will consume them every day. Dealers who were quick off the mark went to evacuation shelters while they were still overflowing with people. Displaced persons were having trouble sleeping so the dealers were able to swiftly gain a foothold and build demand. Through word of mouth they have been able to expand their customer base which now includes high school students and the elderly. Their territory is no longer limited just to areas that were seriously affected by the disaster, they are now even generating strong sales in the heart of Sendai city.”
Based on this, G believes stimulants are “not suited” for areas that have been afflicted by disaster.
“Most of the customers are not taking the drugs for pleasure. Every time there is an aftershock they have flashbacks of the quake and tsunami and think about the loved ones they’ve lost. They take drugs to try and escape the pain caused by those memories. If they take a stimulant they can’t sleep and that only makes matters worse. They want to feel relaxed. What the people in Tohoku need is ‘alcohol and sleeping pills,’” according to G’s analysis.
Currently, stimulant pushers in the region are switching horses and establishing themselves as sedative dealers. They source their drugs through illegal prescriptions in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, or by way of individuals who smuggle them in illegally from abroad.
“A sheet of ten sleeping pills is being sold for a few thousand yen. Though that doesn’t sound like much, it can’t be laughed at as a source of income for the gangs. One dealer went to Tohoku for just a couple of months and came back with more than three million yen (about 30,000 U.S. dollars) in sales,” said G.
“If you can sell sleeping pills, it also means there’s a market for marijuana. This summer we might see a shift in that direction,” he added.
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