An increasing number of youths are being hospitalized in Tokyo after inhaling herbs for their stimulatory or hallucinatory effects.
An investigation by the Tokyo metropolitan government has found that the number of stores in the city selling these types of herbs has increased to 93.
The investigation found that some products contain drugs restricted by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law.
The Metropolitan Police Department and metropolitan government are on increased alert about these herbs, and say that they are proliferating rapidly.
The herbs contain dried pieces of plant that are mixed with drugs designed to generate hallucinatory or stimulatory effects. The herbs are sold as incense in many cases.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says these drugs may be harmful, and is warning people against using them.
A Yomiuri Shimbun reporter visited a store selling these herbs in a busy district of Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, shortly after 7 p.m. this month.
When the reporter entered the shop, a male shopkeeper asked, "Have you decided what you would like to buy?"
The shopkeeper recommended a black package with English writing on it containing three grams of a herb, priced at 5,000 yen (S$75). When the reporter asked about the herb's legality, the storekeeper said, "Goods sold in my store have no problems."
The shopkeeper explained that just like a cigarette, the herb should be wrapped in paper and smoked. But he said nothing about the effects of smoking the herb.
According to the Tokyo Fire Department and other authorities, at least 26 people have been hospitalized this year after using these herbs.
In one case, a patient temporarily fell unconscious.
On Jan. 25, three boys inhaled the herb at night on the streets of Shibuya Ward, and were rushed to a hospital by ambulance after becoming nauseous.
Before dawn on Feb. 12, a man in his 30s and a woman in her 20s who inhaled this type of herb in a condominium in Minato Ward. were hospitalized.
On March 13, a man who had smoked a herb suffered convulsions inside a taxi and needed to be hospitalized.
According to the metropolitan government's investigation, there were only two stores selling these herbs in Tokyo in fiscal 2009. This rose to 17 in fiscal 2010 and 93 in fiscal 2011.
Recently, authorities confirmed that one shop is operating in the Tama district of western Tokyo.
In addition, analyses of nine herbs sold in Tokyo found they contained drug substances regulated by law.
The metropolitan government instructed stores to cease selling these nine products.
A metropolitan government official said: "Even if drugs are mixed into these herbs, they simply look like pieces of plant. So people tend to buy them instead of drugs that have a liquid or powder form. Therefore, these herbs have quickly proliferated."
Police authorities are struggling in their efforts to crack down on the herbs.
Currently, there are 68 kinds of products that contain these types of herbs. New products with slightly different combinations of ingredients often appear one after another to evade regulation.
A senior police official said, "It's a cat-and-mouse game."
In the case involving the three boys who were hospitalized, the store where they said they were given the herb for free, was raided on Jan. 26 by the police on suspicion of causing injury.
In cases such as this, police conduct raids on the suspicion that the shop violated the law.
But a senior MPD official said: "Without analyzing the ingredients, it's unclear whether they contain drug substances. We conducted the raid on suspicion of injury because a quick investigation was necessary."
To address this situation, the health ministry is considering whether to introduce a system to categorize the herbs, where authorities will be able to enforce regulations even if the ingredients in products contain slightly different combinations.
But introducing this system was debated about a dozen years ago, when similar types of drugs proliferated. Efforts to create a categorization system were abandoned because of legal problems and technical tasks.