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. There has not been a single case yet of a smuggling boat intercepted at sea or of a large quantity hidden in commercial freight.
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.
Chronic amphetamine abuse can lead to dependency and can cause a variety of physical health problems including damage to the liver, kidneys or stomach. It can cause malnutrition. It can also lead to psychological problems including psychosis, paranoia and aggression. Paranoid delusions are common amongst heavy users, who often carry weapons. Use of methamphetamines contributes to the violence of the yakuza scene.
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.
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 ensure that some regular users recruit others to finance their own consumption, thus spreading the habit further. Many users who develop dependency will refrain from seeking help if doing so means admitting to be a law breaker.
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. For example, before opiates 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.
The same happened with amphetamines. When they 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 and before they die they can pass the disease to others, even to those who do not use any illegal substances.
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.
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.