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More effort urged to curb youth drug use Education said key to keep abuse from mushrooming, kids going to pot
By AKEMI NAKAMURA Staff writer
The man was 17 when he took speed for the first time, experimenting with a high school friend by inhaling the amphetamine in smoke form.
People talk about their drug problems with staff of the Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center in Taito Ward, Tokyo, during a meeting earlier this month.
Little did he know that event would lead the way to prolonged drug abuse.
Now 21, he has experienced a wide range of narcotics, including Ecstasy, marijuana, magic mushrooms and tranquilizers.
"I took Ecstasy for a high when I went to clubs. When I smoked marijuana, it seemed everything I ate tasted good, and it sometimes made me fall into a trance," he recalled, adding that he took tranquilizers regularly over the past year.
His euphoria ended abruptly in early August, when he was busted for possessing and growing cannabis at home -- a violation of the Cannabis Control Law.
After receiving a suspended 18-month prison term, the man started attending meetings of a self-help group for addicts in Tokyo earlier this month and is now in Hokkaido undergoing a three-month rehabilitation program.
"I'd never seen myself as a drug addict. I still wonder if I really need this rehabilitation," he said, explaining that his mother told him to either enroll in the program or move away from home.
Authorities here claim they have been largely successful in curbing the spread of illegal drugs compared with North America and Europe, and they credit in part Japan's strict narcotics laws.
But drug use nonetheless has emerged as a serious problem involving the nation's youth, as highlighted by a string of recent arrests of high school students possessing illegal drugs, especially marijuana and Ecstasy, or methylene-dioxy methamphetamine (MDMA).
A 16-year-old nonstudent and a Tokyo high school boy who sold Ecstasy to a girl at his school were arrested in January for allegedly violating the Poisonous and Deleterious Substances Control Law.
In Saitama Prefecture, about 20 high school students were arrested or otherwise taken into custody in July for either allegedly possessing marijuana or committing several thefts and burglaries to support their drug use.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 191 minors were charged with marijuana violations in 2003, up 50.4 percent from 1999. Ecstasy busts rose to 43 in the first half of this year, although only seven minors were held in all of 2002, when the ministry first released arrest figures.
Experts believe these figures are just the tip of the iceberg.
Authorities and communities need to come up with measures to curb drug use because young people are expected to come increasingly into contact with narcotics, said lawyer Sakae Komori, who has handled numerous drug-related cases.
"Young people can buy illegal drugs more easily these days from dealers via the Internet or on the streets" in urban hangouts like Tokyo's Shibuya district, he said. "They may fear becoming overwhelmed by narcotics . . . but may view taking drugs (in low quantities) as a dare just like shoplifting."
Some young people even take the colorful Ecstasy tablets, which started spreading in Japan several years ago, because it's a fad, Komori said. They also tend to believe biased or mistaken views on marijuana, including that smoking pot is harmless, he added.
They may think drugs are not as harmful as Japanese authorities say, because some countries in North America and Europe have tolerant policies toward so-called soft drugs, like marijuana, Komori said.
Naoyuki Nishimura, a psychiatrist in Okinawa who has long worked on drug addiction, said marijuana and Ecstasy, regardless of how often they are ingested, can cause more serious damage to minors than adults.
"Using chemical stimulants like Ecstasy damages the brain, although we can't see" the actual effects, he said. "It's especially harmful to adolescents' brain development."
Nishimura said smoking marijuana can also lead people to try more potent drugs, and some pot smokers may be exposed to noncannabis substances without knowing it, because marijuana may sometimes be laced with stimulants, including heroin and amphetamines, to induce stronger effects.
According to experts, most young people who take illegal drugs do not experience serious health or social problems, including addiction.
But drug use can still destroy lives and hurt families.
A 33-year-old Tokyo carpenter said his wife and daughter left him about two years ago because he could not quit amphetamines, a habit he started at age 17 or 18.
"I stopped using drugs for two or three years after I got married because I made a promise to my wife," he said. "But I started taking drugs again when she was away from home for childbirth, and I became addicted again." He claims he has now been clean for 19 months.
Komori said the key to combating illegal drug use is to better educate youths, including providing them with accurate information about the effects and risks of various kinds of drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.
"Trying to scare young people off drugs (with exaggerated messages) does not work" because young people can easily turn to the Internet to find out whether information they have been given is accurate, he said.
Tsuneo Kondo, a representative of the Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center, a self-help group in Taito Ward, Tokyo, said communities should build networks of public and private organizations to offer support to young people with drug problems.
"Adolescents feel the need to sort out various emotions, and some may turn to drugs," he said. "So when they face a drug problem, adults in the community need to be there with special skills and knowledge to help them."