Photo/IllutrationCannabis-laced chocolate, left, and a hemp-based snack seized by Kobe Customs officials in October 2018 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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To those in the know, they're called hash brownies, not to be confused with traditional chocolate cookies of the same name.

But these ones are rather special, as cannabis is one of the ingredients, a method intended to produce a state of euphoria known as a body high.

So, it is easy to imagine the fear, anxiety and nauseousness that took hold after seven men and women ranging in age from their 50s to 80s unwittingly ingested marijuana-laced chocolate at a function held at a ward-run facility in the Higashi-Nippori 5-chome district of the capital’s Arakawa Ward.

To the concern of the nearly 150 other attendees of the social dance event, the seven residents were taken to a hospital complaining of breathing problems, numbness of the limbs and other issues.

The incident occurred around 3 p.m. on March 10 after the seven individuals sampled chocolates brought back from the United States by a male participant in his 70s.

While their conditions were later judged not to be serious, traces of cannabis were found in their urine.

The man who unknowingly triggered the crisis said he was given the chocolates during a recent trip to the United States and presented them to the gathering for people to enjoy in a typical act of Japanese hospitality.

All the snacks were consumed at the venue, and only the plastic packaging remained. The material stated it was from Colorado.

Tokyo police investigating the matter concluded that no intentional criminal act had taken place.

LEGAL IN NORTH AMERICA

Hemp is well known for making users feel good as well as lethargic. Prolonged use can result in memory impairment, according to the health ministry, which warns that ingesting too much can also result in nausea and even loss of consciousness.

Hemp possession is prohibited by law in Japan.

Although U.S. federal law treats the matter the same way, some states are liberal about possession and recreational use.

Trafficking carries heavy penalties.

U.S. law was relaxed in the 1990s to permit cannabis use for medical purposes, as the hemp plant is known to reduce pain. However, Colorado and nine other states, along with Washington, D.C., enabled residents to consume hemp for recreational use in and after 2012.

Recreational cannabis consumption was also legalized in neighboring Canada last October.

In areas where cannabis for recreational use is legal, dried marijuana smoked in cigarettes, as well as chocolate, cookies, beer, ice cream and other food products featuring the drug, are available at dedicated shops and stores.

Legal hemp product sales in Colorado alone reached 167 billion yen ($1.5 billion) in 2018.

According to the Japanese health ministry, more than 40 percent of people in the United States and Canada try cannabis at least once in their lifetime. In comparison, hemp users in Japan account for only 1.4 percent of those aged between 15 and 64, the ministry said.

“Given that hemp is so widely available and the authorities cannot contain its use, they (the United States and Canada) presumably lifted the ban on cannabis to prevent crime syndicates from making illegal profits, thereby allowing them to raise additional tax revenue,” a health ministry official said.

After cannabis was legalized in Canada, the Japanese Embassy in Ottowa warned that “the Cannabis Control Law could apply to Japanese nationals outside Japan” and urged Japanese residents of Canada “to abide by Japanese legislation and not to consume” cannabis.

UNINTENTIONAL IMPORTS

Still, that's hardly likely to deter tourists from unknowingly consuming cannabis overseas or unwittingly bringing back hemp to Japan, as the man in his 70s did for the social function in Tokyo.

Customs authorities at ports and airports in Japan make strenuous efforts to prevent cannabis from being brought into the country. But it is impractical to expect that they are able to open and check all tourist baggage, given the millions of people who travel each year.

“To be honest, it's difficult to spot cannabis products that travelers accidentally bring back,” said a Tokyo Customs official.

There have been numerous cases overseas of people other than regular pot users accidentally consuming foodstuffs containing cannabis.

Masahiko Funada, a section chief in the Department of Drug Dependence Research of the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, said ingesting cannabis-based confectionery and other foodstuffs is not like smoking weed as the effects take longer to emerge, leading to excessive consumption.

“In my view, it's a dangerous state of affairs when anyone can consume cannabis,” Funada said. “If a baby ingests cannabis for whatever reason, there could be serious health repercussions."

“As more products with cannabis become available abroad, people should exercise more care in what they bring back to Japan,” he said.

(This article was written by Chihaya Inagaki and Chihiro Ara.)