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Newshawk: Marcus-Mermelstein Family (
Source: Knight Ridder news service
Pubdate: 11 Feb 1998
Author: Michael Zielenziger, Mercury News Staff Writer
Note: Emiko Doi of the Knight Ridder Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.


NAGANO, Japan -- In this nation where millions of businessmen come home drunk from work each night, and cancer of the liver is a leading cause of death, there is no tolerance for what Americans consider recreational drugs such as marijuana.

So while Canadian officials hoped to convince a panel of arbitrators that a positive test for marijuana should not compel the International Olympic Committee to strip Canadian Ross Rebagliati of the first gold medal awarded in snowboarding, it was hard to find anyone here to support them.

After all, this is a nation where expatriates are forced to smuggle in bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol, because the drug is banned by the national health agency. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was kept out of the country for nearly two decades because of an old marijuana charge. And even the hint of marijuana at a social gathering can cause serious suggestions that the police should immediately be called.

``The way Japan prohibits marijuana is just fine,'' said Hiromi Suzuki, 22, a university student, as he drank a beer and ate nachos with friends at Liberty, a smoky bar that is proving popular during the Winter Olympic Games. ``Some say Japan is too strict and others are not. But I think the rules as they are seem just fine.''

Added Shigeru Togasaki, a television cameraman who lives in Nagano: ``When in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. If the IOC decides how to deal with this, the athletes should accept what the IOC has said. Since he is part of the official Olympics, he should behave himself.''

While the Canadians argued that the IOC should not act as a ``social police'' cracking down on a drug long associated with snowboarder culture, there is little questioning of authority here. While the Canadians argue that using pot does not enhance an athlete's performance, the Japanese don't see a distinction.

``Illegal is illegal,'' said Shigeru Wakabayashi, owner of the Liberty. ``If one wants to smoke, he should do it without anyone noticing. It is not smart to show signs that can be detected officially and obviously.''

Even other athletes had little support for the Canadian position. Male and female hockey players have been warned for months that using Sudafed, an over-the-counter cold medication, could trigger positive drug findings because it contains the banned substance ephedrine.

``It was stupidity,'' said Karyn Bye, a forward on the U.S. women's hockey team. ``We've been lectured nonstop for months that we can't take anything into our bodies,''

The lack of support for Rebagliati's cause should surprise no one who has spent any time in Japan where repressed desire is a constant theme.

``We have been drinking sake and alcohol for so long now, it's part of our culture,'' said one Japanese woman who says she occasionally smokes marijuana, and asked that her name not be printed. ``But drugs are so new to us, that we are very afraid of them.

``Still, there are more people doing drugs than people realize.''

By U.S. standards, the number of drug abusers here is minuscule. But in a nation remarkable for its orderliness and conformity, National Police officials say they are alarmed by what they perceive as a dramatic upsurge in drug arrests. Last year, for instance, 235 high school students were arrested for drug use, compared to 111 in 1995. Meanwhile, nationwide drug crimes topped 26,000 last year for the first time since the mid-1970s.

For young people here, the illegal drug of choice is not marijuana, but methamphetamine, known here as ``shabu.'' Mostly manufactured with the help of Japan's organized crime, or yakuza, it is said to be the first serious drugs teenagers use after sniffing glue. Police officials say women, more than men, are more likely to be drug users.

Western drug advocates like to pose a distinction between marijuana, which they view as a ``lifestyle'' drug, as opposed to harder substances like heroin or cocaine. But in Japan, the approval of drugs is so rigidly controlled that alcohol and tobacco are perhaps the only substances that Japanese can routinely abuse.

In the corporate culture of Japan, the ``social drink'' after work usually extends from the close of business until the last trains leave Tokyo's largest stations, just after midnight. A straggler can stand in the city's giant Shinjuku station on any night at 11:45 and see perhaps 200,000 drunken commuters staggering to catch the last train home.

As Western music and movies grow popular and more Japanese travel abroad to study and travel, the curiosity about marijuana has grown. So even though none of those interviewed at Liberty said they had ever tried pot, all expressed eagerness to sample it.

``I would love to smoke pot at least once before I die,'' said Ayako Sudo, 22, another art student. ``Some of my friends in Tokyo, in New York tell me they have smoked marijuana, but I haven't met anybody in Nagano who smokes.

``I'd really like to try it,'' she added, ``but I don't want to get addicted.''

Knight Ridder news service,
February 11, 1998

See also:
See also: news index.
See also: Hemp as a "drug".
See also: Alcohol in Japan.

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