The number of people hospitalized after inhaling or consuming certain types of herbs for their stimulatory or hallucinatory effects has sharply risen in Tokyo this year, leading police to step up their inspections of shops selling these substances.
According to a senior officer at the Metropolitan Police Department, 11 people in 11 cases were hospitalized after inhaling these herbs last year. This has surged to 91 people in 79 cases from Jan. 1 to May 18 this year. At this rate, the number of cases for 2012 could be 20 times larger than last year's total.
On average one person per month was hospitalized last year, but this year roughly 20 people each month are receiving medical treatment at hospitals.
The herbs, which are not subject to legal controls, contain dried plant pieces mixed with drugs designed to generate hallucinatory or stimulatory effects. The herbs are typically sold as incense. In Yokohama and other cities, it has been confirmed that vending machines sell these products.
In Europe, these herbs first became popular around 2005, leading to tighter regulations. However, new types of drugs that are not subjected to control are continuously being made.
Due to the rapid proliferation of these herbs among young people, the MPD, in cooperation with the Tokyo metropolitan government, will boost their investigations into sellers, while the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry also will strengthen its regulations.
The police station that has dealt with the most cases of herb related medical issues is Shibuya, with 25 people affected. Shinjuku Police Station was next with 11 people.
Male high school students were among 12 minors who have been hospitalized. In one case, three people were reportedly taken to a hospital.
On May 16, a person died, the first death that is believed to be the result of inhaling a herb.
In Osaka earlier this month, a man was accused of inhaling such herbs and causing a hit-and-run accident on a shopping street in the city's Fukushima Ward that left a woman seriously injured.
Takeru Koizumi, a 22-year-old painter, was arrested on suspicion of dangerous driving resulting in injury from the accident.
Asked about the sharp rise in the number of people being hospitalized, a senior MPD officer said, "Probably there're more young people who have learned about these herbs from online comments and tried to smoke them."
As of May 18, there were 82 shops selling these herbs in Tokyo, down from 93 in February last year. However, an MPD officer said, "Some shops are only closed temporarily because they're afraid of being inspected."
The MPD instructed all police stations in Tokyo to frequently inspect the shops in conjunction with the metropolitan government, and will compile the results at the end of this month.
When people are taken to a hospital, the MPD identifies the sellers of the smoked herbs and investigates the shops on suspicion that the vendors inflicted bodily harm. The MPD uses these cases to find out the condition of these businesses.
To escape restrictions imposed by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, some shops sell products with ingredients that differ only slightly from ones that are banned.
Taking this tactic into consideration, the ministry is now considering whether to introduce a system that would allow the government to collectively restrict the production and distribution of drugs made using similar ingredients.
This summer the metropolitan government will create a database of herb-related information. It plans to purchase products online that are in circulation in Europe and other regions. The government will then analyze the products and pass the information from this analysis to the ministry in the hope that the ministry designates the drugs as illegal.
Shop still open after police raid
A Yomiuri Shimbun reporter visited a shop selling these herbs in the back streets of Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.
In April and May, people were hospitalized after inhaling herbs they purchased from the shop. The cases prompted the MPD to twice investigate the shop, but it continues to sell these herbs.
On Wednesday night, young people and foreigners continuously visited the shop to buy bags of herbs that were displayed in a glass cabinet.
A male shop assistant said: "We're selling these herbs as incense. Although police came here to do an on-site inspection, our products haven't changed."
Tomoji Yanagida, a guest professor of The Jikei University, said: "In some cases, due to a drug contained in these herbs, blood pressure suddenly drops, resulting in death. Those who use these herbs need to be aware of their danger."