Japan kicks its ‘loophole herb’ drug habit

TOKYO (MarketWatch) — At a head shop in Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya ward, its shelves strewn with Jamaican flag knick-knacks and bongs bearing marijuana motifs, a clerk swiftly shoots down an inquiry on the availability of “dappo habu,” a previously quasi-legal mix of herbs laced with chemical compounds that pack a narcotic punch.

“The police cracked down on it heavily in recent months,” she says. “It used to be easy to find, but you can’t buy it legally anymore.”

Until the middle of last year, dappo habu — literally meaning “loophole herb” and akin to fake marijuana “spice” or “K2” found in the West — was readily available in Tokyo’s nightlife scene. Its rise and fall offer an interesting tale of Japan and how the country is tightening its control of intoxicants, even as the U.S. and other nations are decriminalizing illicit drugs such as marijuana.

Prior to the crackdown, loophole drugs “were sold in the equivalent of a head shop,” says Brett Bull, founder of Japanese crime news site Tokyo Reporter. “The drugs come in what look like tea packets, and those were on display inside the shops.”

Walking through Tokyo’s red-light district, Bull points to a shop hardly bigger than a stall, tucked away on a quiet side street by a strip club and a hair salon. Dappo herb was once openly sold at the shop, he says, but now the lights are out and it’s empty inside.

In its heyday, dappo was often sold as “incense” under English-language brand names like “Assassin,” “Bolt” and the poorly spelled “Illution.” Until the middle of last year, the chemists who made it managed to play a legal cat-and-mouse game, tweaking the molecular makeup of the active ingredients whenever a previous strain was banned. Tinkering in the lab would allow the new variant to slip under the legal radar again for a time, hence the term “loophole” herb.

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Those who have smoked dappo describe a range of effects, from euphoria and hallucinations to “bad trip” symptoms such as vomiting and feelings of panic or dread.

“You can taste the chemicals on it when you smoke it. You don’t need much for it to really hit you hard. When I tried it, I couldn’t stop laughing,” said a Japanese woman who has used the drugs on four different occasions and asked to remain anonymous.

However, another erstwhile dappo user who declined to give his name said the experience was an ordeal: “I felt like my eyes were closed, but I could still see as things were rushing past me. I had to get away from my friends and be alone. I’d never do it again.” (See an image of dappo herb packets and vials from this archived Asahi Shimbun report.)

In any event, the loophole began to close last July when Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare launched a public-awareness campaign to rebrand dappo herb, a relatively bland term, as “kiken” (“dangerous”) drug. Along with this came a law with real teeth, allowing Tokyo metropolitan police to visit shops known to peddle the stuff — a right previously limited to pharmaceutical inspectors. A subsequent wave of dappo/kiken busts drove the message home.

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At the same time, a media blitz portrayed the perils of using dappo. From a man falling off his bicycle while stoned on it last September, to a motorist driving onto a sidewalk in front of Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo last June, killing one pedestrian and injuring seven, notable disasters on dappo have made waves in the national press.

Celebrities are not immune either. In November of 2013, girl supergroup AK48’s manager Tomonobu Togasaki, then 40, was caught on camera toking a pipe packed with dappo herb in the stairwell of a bar-restaurant in Tokyo’s posh Moto Azabu neighborhood. Given AKB48’s squeaky-clean public image, the images whipped up considerable controversy.

Nao Mazaki, Japan’s representative at Foundation for a Drug-Free World, says the synthetic mash-up nature of drugs like dappo make them especially risky.

“You never know what will happen to your mind and body with these kinds of drugs,” Mazaki said. “You cannot compare kiken drugs with other illegal drugs, as there are thousands of products in the ‘kiken drug’ category. But kiken drugs could be much more dangerous than [other] illegal drugs, since no one knows what they contain.”

Law enforcement has targeted establishments hawking dappo with a vengeance in recent months. In December, Tokyo police busted a shop called Heaven for selling just two pouches of kiken drugs for 3,400 yen ($28). And after a larger raid in January, they scored their largest kiken bust to date in late February, seizing 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) from an alleged dappo-herb producer in Kanagawa.

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“Crackdowns in Japan are fairly effective,” says Jake Adelstein, author of “Tokyo Vice” and editor-in-chief of the publication “Japan Subculture Research Center.”

“Once the police have a law and are motivated, they do a good job. For example, human trafficking of foreign women was a serious problem for Japan in 2005-2006. But by 2009, after laws had been put on the books, the trafficking in foreign women significantly declined,” Adelstein says. (Japanese police officials hadn’t responded to a request for comment as of the publishing of this report.)

The story of dappo herb isn’t the first case of a controlled substance rocketing to popularity and then getting pushed virtually out of existence in a police crackdown. As recently as the early 2000s, psilocybin — a.k.a. “magic mushrooms” — was openly hawked on the streets of nightlife hubs like Tokyo’s Center Gai and Kabuki-cho.

However, when the World Cup came to Japan in 2002, the authorities decided that allowing the open use of hallucinogens wasn’t a good idea. As a result, the trade was taken off the streets and had practically disappeared before the first games began.

Younger Japanese could get their voices heard

View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/japan-kicks-its-loophole-herb-drug-habit-2015-03-29

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