Japan, despite its lax attitude toward tobacco and alcohol, has always been very strict when it comes to matters of “more illicit” drugs. Laws regulating soft drugs such as marijuana are as strict as those toward heroin and cocaine. This was not so until the American Constitution was imposed on Japan after World War II; actually hemp has been an integral part of Japanese culture and religion since ancient times (see www.taima.org for more details), but that is another article altogether.
Generally, restrictions on all drugs in Japan are so strong that it is not uncommon for customs officers to seize over-the-counter foreign cold medicines, and possession of cannabis can lead to weeks in jail. The most famous victim of this law is Beatle Paul McCartney, who spent nine days in jail in 1980 for the possession of 219 grams (7.7 ounces) of marijuana.
In a country this strict, it may surprise some people to know that magic mushrooms were legal in Japan until June 6, 2002. A loophole in the Japanese law banned psilocybin in extracted or pure chemical form but not the actual mushrooms themselves. Thus, magic mushrooms, sealed in plastic wrap, could be purchased alongside weed pipes and Bob Marley posters in head shops throughout Japan. I’m not sure about the specifics of the law, but the packages I saw said “観賞用” (Basically look but don’t eat) on them. Of course, everyone was eating them, from college students to gaijin to bored housewives. It must have been the housewives, or perhaps the threat of hooligans at the 2002 World Cup that prodded the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor & Welfare to close up the loophole.
Luckily, we had some advance warning. There was a bit of lag time between the decision to outlaw magic mushrooms and the date that the law came into effect. All of the head shops had signs up reminding their customers that they had until June 6, 2002 to stock up on as many mushrooms as possible. This is the story of my experience during this period of lawlessness.
Working as JET’s in rural Japan, my friend and I knew that a weekend trip to Kobe/Osaka would be necessary to score some mushrooms. We had both tried them before in our respective home countries, and thought we knew what we were getting into. The shops were not hard to find – there were several under the tracks of Kobe’s Sannomiya Station. We bought what they had in stock and proceeded to Osaka to test out our newfound purchases at an underground Shinsaibashi club.
It was hard to believe that we had just legally bought mushrooms and were about to eat them in public. But there they were, legally purchased magic mushrooms, smelling like dirty socks, sitting in our hands.
It was time to eat. Since the mushrooms were “観賞用” they didn’t exactly have the serving size and nutritional value printed on the packaging. They looked to be about 1/8 of an ounce, the average size of one “hit” back in the states. Only later would we figure out that 1/8 of this species of Dutch ‘shrooms (‘shrooms – as they are called – are usually a less potent Mexican species in the U.S.) was enough to make 6 grown men see Jesus.
So at first, we were having a pretty good time – there is a certain confidence that ‘shrooms impart and it seemed like everybody loved us – we had the whole place under control. Control… I gradually began to lose control of my body slowly but surely. I was fully conscious but was stuck in an “observer” state. I needed to lay down. The last thing I saw before I turned comatose was my friend standing on the bar kicking over other peoples’ drinks. Then I got a good ten minutes of ceiling watching in before two monsters with Down Syndrome began trying to tear me limb from limb (actually they were a couple of Australian guys who had called me an ambulance and were lugging me up the stairs and out of the club – thanks guys if you ever read this).
The mushrooms ran their course through my body and I experienced something that can only be described as flickering in and out of existence (yes these were strong drugs!). Being placed in the ambulance triggered a fear reaction and brought me back down to Earth. The nice young paramedic patiently tried to get my to write down my name and address, but I was determined to write on the air instead of on the paper. He seemed to know what mushrooms were, and had seen cases like me before. “Are magic mushrooms bad for you?” I asked him. Wheeling me out of the ambulance and into the E.R., he replied, “Well, they’re not good for you.”
The doctors and nurses in the E.R. were a bit more clueless. I had already fessed up to my semi-illegal deed, so I figured it was too late to change my story, but I felt a little silly explaining what magic mushrooms were to the emergency room doctor. He had never heard of them before and had to look them up on the internet. The internet?? How do you become a doctor in Japan anyway? The nurse seemed not to want to release me, but I lied to her and said that my hallucinations had stopped, and she let me go after I signed the appropriate forms. Luckily my employer never found out about the whole debacle, and thanks to Japan’s health insurance system, the ambulance ride only cost me about 1,000 yen!
So, you ask, whatever happened to my friend dancing on the bar? He got tackled and was nearly choked to death by club security. He had also apparently jumped onto a ceiling lamp and pulled it out of the socket. He ripped some girl’s designer clothes too, so club security tried to threaten him into paying 100,000 yen for damages, saying that the bar was yakuza owned and they’d be there any minute. Somehow he managed to hand someone a 10,000 yen bill and slip away. Needless to say, the next day neither of us were in the mood for any more magic mushrooms. Which was probably for the best since the extras we bought had somehow disappeared at some point that night anyway.
This story is here to entertain, but I hope it does make some people think seriously about the drug policies of Japan and other countries. Although I got off scott-free in early 2002, the same stunt today could earn you up to 7 years in prison! What a difference a silly little law makes. A good Japanese friend of mine swore he would never try “Drugs” like marijuana, but in return he offered me a cigarette dipped in paint thinner. Almost all societies have a long way to go in creating rational drug policies. In the meantime, let’s all just be sure to stay out of trouble.
On that note, if you do have any stories where you pushed the limit with drugs in Japan, let us know with a comment below!