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World Perspective | Narcotics

Japanese on a Fast Track to Addiction

Nation uses about 18 tons of speed annually; methamphetamine buyers outnumber users of all other drugs combined.


TOKYO — Yoichi Tsubokura, 51, spent two-thirds of his life addicted to methamphetamines. Speed had such a grip over him that he once used money earmarked for his mother's funeral to get high.

Three years ago, however, he entered counseling, kicked the habit and now works with other addicts who are hoping to get straight. But fighting the scourge sometimes seems hopeless, he says, as the use of uppers increases in Japan.

"It's so widespread," Tsubokura says, his face etched with deep creases from years of hard living. "I just want people to know what hell I went through so they can avoid it."

Rough estimates by police suggest that 2.2 million people in this generally well-behaved nation consume about 18 tons of speed annually, exceeding the number of users of marijuana and all other illegal drugs combined.

And recently, the drug has been landing on Japanese shores in chart-busting quantities, ringing alarm bells with police, educators and social scientists. Just two seizures in Japanese ports since January netted a combined 1,030 pounds, after a record 4,355 pounds taken in 1999. This compares with just 478 pounds in 1989.

Despite the record hauls, street prices haven't increased, a sign that police aren't making much headway. "We estimate we're only getting about 10%," says Wataru Ohashi, deputy director of drug enforcement with the National Police Agency. "With such huge profits at stake, criminal groups are moving in much more aggressively."

Part of the surge reflects supply-side economics. Japan produces almost no speed itself, but criminal groups elsewhere in Asia are expanding their exports to Japan to earn valuable yen, experts say.

And although police here can coordinate with their counterparts in China--which accounts for an estimated 40% of the supply--Japan has little influence in North Korea and Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle, both of which have surged as suppliers in recent years.

As quantities increase, police say, local dealers have become more adept at marketing and distribution. Speed traditionally was sold directly by yakuza, members of Japanese organized crime, or by ratty motorcycle gangs. In the last several years, however, crime syndicates have hired more Iranians, Filipinos and other immigrants. This has expanded the sales force and broadened the appeal, because the foreigners often are less scary than fearsome yakuza to soft-core customers.

Authorities say dealers also have become increasingly skilled at using cell phones, beepers, the Internet and overnight delivery services. This often means that buyers and sellers never meet, making it tougher to engineer a bust. And a shift to pill and powder forms, rather than traditional injectable doses, has expanded the appeal among a middle class wary of contracting AIDS.

Unfortunately, the gangs also are finding young Japanese increasingly receptive. Arrests among senior and junior high school students have gone up several fold in recent years, albeit from a small base.

"The conventional value system has collapsed," says Shingo Takahashi, a psychiatrist at Toho University and a noted expert on troubled youth. "Often there's a real sense of cultural emptiness."

Relative to the United States, Japan's drug problem is still tiny. Fewer than 20,000 speed users are arrested each year, of which fewer than 500 are high school students, in a nation of 126 million people. By Japanese standards, however, the problem is huge, recently prompting the government to set up an interagency task force under Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

The fact that speed is Japan's illegal drug of choice has historical roots. During World War II, it was often given to soldiers before battle. Immediately after the war, the army's huge stockpiles found their way onto consumer markets, according to a government report.

A second wave occurred in the 1980s, but a Health Ministry official says the current third spike is particularly worrisome.

Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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