The following scene, witnessed by reporters from Spa (May 24-31), unfolded last month at a club in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.
Deafening music permits some, if broken, conversation. A young man takes from his pocket a vial containing an oily liquid. He squirts a few drops on what look like gumdrops. He turns to a young woman next to him. “Interested?”
She is. “What is it? Grass? L?” Whatever. “Give me one.”
“Without hesitation” she pops it into her mouth. Within half an hour she is unable to stand. Her friends – one hopes they are her friends – carry her out of the club.
The story is more blank than substance. What was the man offering? No mere gumdrop, obviously. Marijuana? LSD? Something else? Did money change hands? Was the woman all right? Did she get home safely?
We’ll never know. Spa claims to be chronicling a “drug pandemic.” COVID-19 has schooled us in “pandemic” proportions – tens and hundreds of millions, worldwide. The alleged “drug pandemic” in Japan is miniscule in comparison: 5,482 arrests for marijuana offenses nationwide in 2021, according to the National Police Agency – up from 5,036 in 2020 and 3,007 in 2017, a steady rise and of concern no doubt, the more so coupled with 12,124 arrests in 2020 pertaining to methamphetamine; still, a sense of perspective is in order. As of 2019, health ministry figures show, 1.8 percent of Japanese have used marijuana at least once – versus 44.2 percent of Americas.
An ironic historical aside: Japan came late to agriculture, and among its very first cultivated plants, 7,000-odd years ago, was cannabis. It flourished throughout the archipelago, a source down the millennia of food and of hemp fiber for clothing, rope, nets and ritual purification accouterments.
Did people get high? They may have – shamans, perhaps. The evidence is vague, the jury is out. Either way, Japan never spawned a drug culture, only a hemp culture – which the American-led Occupation of 1945-52 stamped out via the 1948 Cannabis Control Law, fruit of the U.S. “war on drugs” then unfolding. To this day Japan’s drug laws are among the strictest in the world, untouched by global trends towards decriminalization of medicinal or recreational marijuana use.
But enforcement grows harder. Online trafficking is a challenge not easily met. Likewise increasingly ingenious chemistry that makes narcotics look like something else – gumdrops for instances, or cakes and cookies and the like.
And the stuff is affordable. At least some of it is. Spa quotes prices: 800 yen for a marijuana high, 2,000 yen for an LSD trip. The harsh economic realities now prevalent seem to stimulate rather than inhibit the quest for psychotropic escape.
We never learn what laced the gumdrop the woman in the Roppongi club swallowed – possibly LSD, Spa speculates, which is interesting in view of its history. First synthesized in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, it drew excited attention from psychiatrists – as cocaine had a generation earlier – for its supposed treatment potential. It induced hallucinations. To some these represented higher consciousness; to others, “bad trips,” sometimes disastrous.
Guru of the psychedelic counter-culture of the 1960s was one-time Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary (1921-1996), who saw LSD’s potential in helping “to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.” “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” he said, to mixed applause and horror. It was a phase “Western” civilization went through, rising at its most colorful (or sinking at its most abject, depending on point of view) to “acid rock,” named for LSD’s nickname, acid.
Embrace reality, or escape it? Half a century later that remains the question, the modern “to be or not to be” – still unsettled.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”© Japan Today