Authorities are cracking down on dried plant stems, leaves and seeds similar to drugs, although legal, which are spreading among youths and may be damaging their health.
The number of stores that deal in these products, known as “legal herbs” because they are unregulated, has increased sharply in Tokyo.
According to the metropolitan government, 93 stores sell “legal drugs,” a broader category that includes these plant fragments, up from 17 in fiscal 2010 and two in fiscal 2009.
“Even though these products are billed as 'legal,' the constituents closely resemble those of marijuana and stimulants,” a metropolitan official said. “They can cause serious drug dependence and health damage.”
In the current fiscal year, metropolitan officials have inspected about 50 stores. On Jan. 18, two stores in Shibuya Ward were ordered to suspend sales and recall products because controlled substances were contained.
Many stores that handle “legal herbs” and smoking equipment call themselves sundries stores. The plant fragments are often sold as incense or aromatic products, not for inhalation.
Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department plans to keep a closer watch on sales of these products.
At a store in Shibuya, the dried fragments, cut into 2- to 3-millimeter pieces, were sold in 10-centimeter-square bags for 5,000 yen ($65) or more per bag.
On the night of Jan. 25, three boys, aged 17 to 18, were taken to a hospital after complaining of headaches and nausea at a parking lot in Shibuya.
They were smoking cigar-shaped “legal herbs” they said were given away at a nearby store.
“Similar stores have cropped up in Shibuya, and some let customers smoke inside the stores,” a senior police officer said. “Damage to young people will increase if these products are left as they are.”
Whenever certain substances are prohibited, peddlers come up with new products whose chemical structures are slightly different from those of the banned substances.
“Stores are familiar with the law,” a senior official at the Metropolitan Police Department said. “It is difficult to take action unless banned substances are contained.”
The health ministry is considering revising ordinances to introduce a blanket regulation over products whose chemical structures resemble those of prohibited substances.
In January, the ministry also asked officials in prefectural governments to more closely regulate stores that deal in “legal drugs.”
(This article was written by Kaoriko Okuda and Yutaka Shimizu.)
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