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Amphetamines in Japan

See also:
See also: Alcohol, Nicotine (Tobacco), Caffeine (Coffee), TV.
See also: Cannabis in Japan (main index)
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Drug risks: How dangerous are the most common drugs?
See also: Consumers Union Report (see chapters 36-40)
See also: OGD report 1997/98 on Japan
See also: The problem of the abuse of amphetamines in Japan (1957)

Speed country
Amphetamines are synthetics drugs that include methamphetamine hydrochloride and amphetamine sulfate. They are is commonly referred to as "speed", "meth" or "ice" in the West or as shabu or "stimulant drugs" in Japan. Amphetamines are the fourth most widely used drug after caffeine, alcohol and nicotine and the most widely used illegal drug in the country.

Every year there are some 15,000-25,000 arrests amongst an estimated 1-2.2 million users. Sales are controlled by the yakuza (organised crime syndicates) and some 40-50% of all shabu arrests are amongst yakuza. Most supplies are smuggled in from China or the Philippines. Some popular cold medications from abroad are banned in Japan because they contain precursor chemicals.

The drug is used by many truck and cab drivers and others who work long hours, but also by teenage girls who want to suppress their appetite to lose weight, or students "cramming" for entrance exams. It is used by almost all layers of society, though some rich well connected people use cocaine for similar effects. Cocaine has not replaced shabu because yakuza struck a deal with the government to keep out heroin and cocaine in return for a certain tolerance. More recently there have been cases of Japanese arrested in South America in drug busts involving cocaine, so we may see more cocaine and crack compete with meth in the future.

A typical dose of 30 mg of shabu is said to sell for 2,000 yen (US $17), only about one fifth of its price 20 years ago. Major busts have involved quantities of several hundreds of kg. The largest bust so far netted over 500 kg of the substance, the equivalent of over 16,000,000 individual doses or 32,000,000,000 yen (US $230,000,000). This clearly suggests a large number of users and well organised supply channels. In 1999 almost 2000 kg of the drug were intercepted by Japanese police and customs.

Born from a war
Where did shabu come from? Amphetamines were first synthesized in 1887 in Germany. In 1919 methamphetamine was first produced in Japan. During the 1940s the Japanese government distributed amphetamine pills to soldiers, sailors and pilots as well as to arms factory workers, to mobilize all their reserves for the war effort. Pilots routinely used the drug to remain awake and alert for long periods on long distance bombing missions.

After 1945 large stocks of the drug from looted military supplies flooded the market and no doubt some people used it to suppress the hunger during the starvation period of those chaotic years. In 1952 the drug was made illegal and instantly became a reliable source of cash for the yakuza gangs. During the 1950s as many as 55,000 Japanese per year were arrested for amphetamines. Because of this history, shabu is still associated with the shame of the lost war by the older generation, which is why all illegal drugs have become a taboo subject in otherwise fairly non-puritanical Japan.

Health risks of "speed"
Chronic amphetamine use is not good for you. Let's face it, no drug that robs your body of appetite and your brain of sleep is going to be good for you! Our bodies have limits, need rest and food. Amphetamines fool you into thinking you can achieve anything, without tiredness or hunger, but your body will tell you the truth, in the end.

Chronic amphetamine abuse can lead to powerful psychological dependency. Chronic abuse can lead to psychosis, paranoia and aggressive behaviour. Paranoid delusions are common amongst heavy users, who often carry weapons. Use of amphetamines contributes to the violence of the yakuza scene. Amphetamines also cause serious physical health problems including damage to the liver, kidneys or stomach. Users lose weight up to the point of severe malnutrition. Since amphetamines interfere with the calcium supply of the body they can cause damage to bones and loss of teeth.

Acute effects of the drug include restlessness, rapid heart beat, sweating, gnashing jaws, running nose, loss of appetite and insomnia (inability to sleep).

In habituated users withdrawal of the drug leads to severe depression, which prompts them to use more of the drug to relieve the depression. While many users only use the drug casually at lengthy intervals, some users become so attracted to the drug that they lose control of use and don't stop until they have caused serious health, financial, legal and other problems. Since the drug is only available from criminals, some addicted users get drawn into other criminal activities, such as storage of drugs, smuggling or prostitution in return for drugs.

Problems amplified by drug prohibition

When a substance for which there is a significant demand is made unavailable in legal shops such as pharmacies, its supplies will shift to black market channels and prices will go up. Though high prices and illegality might discourage some people who might try the drug if it was cheap and legal, they also create or amplify a host of problems:

  • High prices induce some regular users to recruit new users to sell to, in order to finance their own supply, thus spreading the habit further.
  • Illegality encourages users to reduce social contacts with non-users, thus encouraging a fixation with drug use.
  • Many users who develop problems will refrain from seeking help if doing so means admitting to have broken the law.
  • Prohibition encourages more risky ways of taking drugs: When someone is addicted to an expensive drug they can not afford the luxury of chosing the least harmful way of using it but the one that is the most cost-effective.

The latter problem is well know in the case of opiates. Before they were made illegal, most addicts smoked opium or drank extracts of opium. Once prices went up addicts switched to injecting concentrated morphine and heroin, adding a whole new set of health risks.

When amphetamines were still legal they were mostly swallowed as pills but nowadays intravenous (IV) use of amphetamines appears to be very common in Japan. In 1996 anywhere between 30% and 80% of Japanese amphetamine users were thought to be injecting the drug. Since clean needles and syringes are not sold in Japanese pharmacies, unsterile needles and syringes pose particular hazards for intravenous drug users (IDU). By sharing needles and syringes IDUs can easily be infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or other blood-borne diseases. Of particular concern are Hepatitis B and C, two viruses that eventually destroy the liver, killing the person unless he or she can get a liver transplant. According to recent studies, between half and three quarters of Japanese IDUs are already infected with hepatitis C. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese amphetamine users may eventually die from liver failure. Before they die they may pass the disease to others, even to those who do not use any illegal substances.

See also:
See also: The Hidden Epidemic: Country report - Japan

Life is too fast
Why do people take stimulant drugs? After the war it may have been to suppress the hunger of famine and to work harder during the reconstruction of the post-Korean war boom, but today there are other reasons. Some young women use them to lose weight, in order to conform to an unrealistic beauty ideal spread by commercials and the media. Increasingly the drug is consumed by people who are bored with life without it.

Maybe not many Japanese know that there is another kind of stimulant drug with similar effects to methamphetamine and cocaine, called ritalin. It is prescribed to about 2 million children in the US who suffer from a condition called ADD / ADHD which expresses itself by limited attention spans, impatience and hyperactivity. Even though the problem is often treated as if it were a physiological disease, there has been some argument that this condition is really the result of growing up in a stimulation-rich environment, including excessive exposure to TV, video, computer games, etc. The ADD / ADHD generation is so used to background noise, movement and flashing colours that it needs a stimulant drug to feel that life isn't boring.

Another popular stimulant drug is caffeine, which is contained in many soft drinks. Kids nowadays get caffeine much earlier and in higher quantities than when their parents were kids. Given the world kids grow up in, it really is no surprise when some try amphetamines or cocaine, unfortunately.

The Japanese drug scene is different
Amphetamines were widely used in other countries during WW2 and after. Hitler himself became an amphetamine addict during WW2, even though he already had that paranoid mindset a long time before. Soldiers in the USA, England and Germany were given amphetamine pills by their governments. However, amphetamine usage only really became widespread in Sweden, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, countries that harshly prosecute users of soft drugs such as marijuana. According to Japanese police estimates, criminals make more than 10 times as much money from one kg of amphetamines than they do from one kg of cannabis. The number of people arrested for amphetamines also is about 10 times higher than for cannabis, suggesting that gangsters concentrate on what is most profitable.

In the long term Japan will either have to build many more prisons or adopt a more tolerant policy towards some drugs. Last year there was one amphetamine arrest for every two prisoners in the country. Japan is short of judges and lawyers. It could not handle a large number of marijuana arrests when amphetamine arrests are so high. As the use of both amphetamines and cannabis are on the rise, Japanese policy makers will have to concentrate their limited resources on where they are most effective.

Harm reduction
Simply applying the same intolerant, inflexible approach to all currently illegal substances has only enabled organized criminals to reap huge profits from black market amphetamines, which are effective in minute doses, therefore more easily smuggled and hence more available than much less harmful cannabis. Stricter enforcement would only increase the health risks associated with drug use. It can be argued that a harm reduction approach would be more productive in the long term. Harm reduction measures could include:

  • a more tolerant approach towards less harmful drugs (cannabis),
  • drug education that does not ignore the differences in risks between different drugs and the circumstances in which they are used,
  • syringe exchange projects,
  • counselling and drug treatment for those who seek it.

Stimulant drug seizures approach record levels

"The volume of stimulant drugs smuggled into Japan and seized by police nation-wide in the first three months of the year totaled 650 kg, almost equaling the largest amount ever confiscated in a full year, the National Police Agency said Saturday. The high volume reflects large seizures in Shimane and Kanagawa prefectures, the NPA said in a report. The record amount seized in a full year was 650.8 kg in 1996.

The report said police in Shimane, Hiroshima and Chiba prefectures jointly seized 101 kg of amphetamine stimulants smuggled into Shimane Prefecture by a Honduras-registered ship Jan. 7. Police in Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures also jointly seized 202.6 kg of amphetamines Feb. 1 smuggled into Yokohama port from China on a large cargo ship. Osaka police seized 210 kg March 31.

The NPA, which has cut off several drug supply routes since last summer, said the actual amount of drugs smuggled into Japan is probably more than estimates made by police because street prices of stimulants have fallen in recent months, suggesting an increase in supply. According to police, almost all stimulant drugs that find their way into Japan are made in China. In most cases, Japanese criminal gangs smuggle them in by freighter after establishing supply routes with Chinese groups. An NPA affiliate estimates that there are about 2.2 million users of stimulant drugs in Japan. The current street value of stimulant drugs is about ¥ 2,000 per 0.03 gram, about one-fifth what it was 20 years ago."

Japan Times,
April 4, 1999

See also:
See also: 616 kg drug bust largest on record
See also: Youth endangered by surge in stimulant use, police warn

See also:
See also: Alcohol, Nicotine (Tobacco), Caffeine (Coffee), TV.
See also: Consumers Union Report (see chapters 36-40)
See also: OGD report 1997/98 on Japan
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Drug risks: How dangerous are the most common drugs?

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