JAPAN - The sale of a mixture of dried plant material and other substances that have hallucinatory and potentially harmful effects is proliferating nationwide, with vendors exploiting a legal loophole to avoid crackdowns.
The substances have effects similar to those of cannabis and other drugs restricted by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, but their chemical makeup is slightly different. Vendors argue the substances are therefore legal, but authorities say this is a ploy to get around the law.
Vendors also say the products are meant not for ingestion but for use as incense.
The substances in question can potentially cause mental illness, and police fear young people may be tempted to experiment with them.
The Tokyo metropolitan government, the Fukuoka prefectural government and local governments have begun investigating the sale of the products, which according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and other authorities began circulating in the nation two or three years ago.
They are sold at specialty stores and variety stores. Users smoke the mixture with a pipe or cigarette papers. One cigarette typically costs from 400 yen (S$6.76) to more than 1,000 yen.
Makers of the products and authorities have been involved in a game of back-and-forth over the legal categorization of the product.
If authorities deem one of the ingredient substances illegal, makers replace it with another substance with a slightly different composition. In this way, a "new" and techincally uncategorized product is created, even though its effects are the same.
Under the law, even products that are not stipulated as illegal cannot be sold without central or prefectural government permission if they are designed as a means of ingesting chemical substances.
But investigators said retailers who sell the product in question market it as incense.
Such products are widely available on the Internet, and according to the Tokyo metropolitan government, they were available in at least about 50 stores in the city as of Nov. 17.
An official of the metropolitan government's pharmaceutical safety control division said, "The number [of shops selling the products] is too large for us to know exactly."
There have been cases of people suffering mental disturbances after smoking such products.
In Kyoto Prefecture, 19 people received hospital treatment after using such products, according to a survey covering January to September this year.
In summer this year, a man in his 20s in Kumamoto became violent and collapsed after smoking such a product. He was taken into police custody for his own protection.
A Fukuoka prefectural police investigator said: "These are known as gateway drugs, or things that can introduce young people to cannabis or stimulant drugs. We need to take action as soon as possible."
The health ministry has instructed prefectural governments to crack down on businesses that are pitching the products as being meant for smoking.
A source close to pharmaceutical affairs said: "People are always coming up with new ways to get around the law, but it's highly likely that these products contain dangerous substances that could be harmful to human health. We advise people to not use them at all."