Methamphetamines are called shabu shabu and hirropon in Japan. In both 1995 and 2005 the percentage of people who said they tried stimulants was 0.3 percent. Many think the true figure is higher. According to police, about 2.6 million Japanese used about 15 to 18 tons of amphetamines a year in the late 1990s. This is more than the use of all other illegal drugs combined. Consumption rose at a rate of 20 percent a year in the 1990s but now seems to have leveled off. In the late 1990s, 90 percent of drug violations involved amphetamines.

A 2009 International Narcotic Control Strategy Report, issued by the U.S. State Department stated: “Methamphetamine abuse remains the biggest challenge” to Japan’s anti-drug effort. It said a decline in the supply of the drug that began in mid-2006 “appears to have reversed” and that Chinese traffickers using supplies from China and Canada are believed to “have stepped in to fill the gap.”

Amphetamines are popular among the fast-paced crowd, among whom moving and grooving without rest is admired. Users includes truck drivers, gang members, teenage girls looking for powerful diet pills, rich spoiled youth, bored housewives, and salarymen. Amphetamine use is increasing among members of the middle calls and senior and junior high school students.

Amphetamines use may be high by Japanese standards but is still low by American and European standards. According to a 1998 U.N. International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) report, amphetamine use "seems to be significantly lower in Japan and the Republic of Korea than in most European countries."

The street value of stimulants sold in Japan is about 90,000 yen ($1,080) per gram, which is four to 10 times what they cost in the United States.

In the first six months of 2009, the number of people arrested with stimulant drugs decreased by 811 from the previous years to 5,384 but the amount of the drug seized increased by 262.2 kilograms with one seizure of 120 kilograms taking place in the fishing port of Muroto, Kochi Prefecture. For the entire year of 2009 the number of cases of stimulant smuggling increased 49 percent from the previous year to 164.

Good Websites and Sources: Speed Country ; Japanese Amphetamines ;Analysis of Speed and Ecstacy found in Japan pdf file ; Studies on Amphetamine Psychosis in Japan Narcotics Anonymous of Tokyo


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Amphetamines, particularly methamphetamine hydrochloride, have become increasingly popular around the world in recent years and are currently among the world’s most widely abused drugs. By some estimates there are 30 million amphetamines users worldwide, compared to 13 million for cocaine and 8 million users of heroin. And, while cocaine and heroin use have declined, amphetamine use has increased.

Amphetamines effects, which can last from 2 to 14 hours, include appetite suppression, euphoria, sexual arousal, dry mouth, tremors, and insomnia. People who take them feel alert, energetic and talkative. When they come down they often are agitated and irritable.

Amphetamines can be taken at work or for fun. Those that take them at work do so to stay awake or to make boring jobs more tolerable. They are also popular with students cramming for exams; truck drivers who spend long periods of time on the road; and are sometimes prescribed by doctors for obesity treatment and attention-deficient disorder.

Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant can be smoked, inhaled, swallowed or injected. If injected or smoked it can produce an intense, euphoric rush, sometimes described as orgasmic. Users are high for 12 to 24 hours, and often feel they can handle anything and go long periods without sleep.. The drug is known as shabu-shabu, kakuseizai or hirropon in Japan and Asia and "speed," "crystal," or "crank" in the United States. "Ice" is a free-base form of the drug that can be smoked.

History of Amphetamines

Natural stimulants such as coca, caffeine and betel had been used for centuries. In 1892, Japanese scientists extracted ephedrine from mahuang, a Chinese drug long used as a pick-me-up and treatment for asthma and other breathing problems. In the 1920s, K.K. Chen of the Eli Lilly company identified the chemical composition of ephedrine. Ephedrine is difficult to extract and make. Scientists trying to make it in the laboratory invented amphetamines instead.

Amphetamines in the form of Benzedrine were initially prescribed as decongestants but were also used as appetite suppressants. Users found that the drug also produced a pleasant, stimulating effect and kept them awake. Scientists in Germany developed several kinds of amphetamines intended to help Nazi soldier fight longer. Amphetamines were issued to Japanese and British soldiers in World War II to keep them awake and alert when there were on missions or pulling night duty. The drugs continue to be used by soldiers today. Some of the friendly fire mistakes made by American pilots in Afghanistan were blamed on amphetamine use.

After World War II, there were huge stockpiles of amphetamines left over in Japan, and many of the drugs found their way onto Japanese streets. There was widespread abuses. Some abusers developed a form of madness called “amphetamine psychosis.” In the 1960s, portent speed could be purchased over the counter at Japanese pharmacies.

In the 1950s and 60s American housewives took amphetamines to lose weight. In the 1960s, hippies used it and called it speed. In Britain it was associated with youth movements, particularly with mods, who liked to mix amphetamines with barbiturates known as Purple Hearts.

A second wave of speed use occurred in 1980s when an inhaled form or methamphetamine called crank became poplar and a third wave occurred in the late 1990s when a smokable form (ice) caught the attention of drug users. In the United States, the drug was often manufactured and distributed by motorcycle gangs such as Hells Angels.

How Amphetamines Work

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Unlike opiates which work mainly by stimulating pleasure-producing receptors, cocaine and amphetamines work by blocking receptors that tell the body to stop producing pleasure compounds and neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline and the help them remains in the bloodstream to bring pleasure.

Amphetamines force dopamine out of vesicles, little sacs used by neurons to store dopamine. This increases the amount of dopamine in the blood makes it harder for the body to break it down, prolonging its effect.

Describing the affects of amphetamines, former heavy user Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time, “When the brain is awash in dopamine, the whole cardiovascular system goes into sympathetic overdrive, increasing your heart rate, pulse, even your respiration. You become, after your first hit of speed, gloriously, brilliantly, vigorously awake. Your horizon of aspirations expands outward, just as your mind eye for capacity for taking effective action to your new, optimistic goals has also grown exponentially. Then, eventually, maybe in an hour, maybe in a day, maybe in a year, you run out of speed, and you crash.”

Amphetamines and Health

Acute deaths caused solely by long tem amphetamines use are very rare. Death is more likely to occur from the effects of a single dose. Lethal doses can cause seizures but more often they cause lethal cardiac effects and/or hypothermia.

People who do a lot of speed sometimes stay up for four or five days straight; have opne sores on their arms and hallucinations of transparent spiders; and are very thin. When they are high the often fidget uncontrollably; scratch themselves a lot; and do repetitive tasks over and over.

Amphetamines increase blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels, dilate breathing tubes and increase body temperature. They can strain the heart, cause irregular heartbeats and are particularly dangerous when used by people who are exercising. Several professional cyclist have died by pushing themselves too hard while on amphetamines.

Long-term amphetamine use can cause paranoia, psychosis, bursts of violence, numbness in the arms and legs, breathing problems, kidney problems, depression, memory loss and damage to the heart, brain, lungs and liver. Injecting amphetamines has a strong impact on the nerves. Excessive use can lead to large ulcers, which d not heal and result in high fatalities.

Amphetamines are regarded as psychologically addictive not physically addictive like heroin. Percent of users who are dependent: 12 percent (compared to more than 80 percent for nicotine). Addicts take about four weeks to detox and often need anti-psychotic drugs.

Amphetamine Production and Use

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Amphetamines are easy to make. Anyone with some basic knowledge of chemistry and some relatively easy-to-obtain starter chemicals can brew them up in their kitchen All one needs to do is combine ephedrine, a common over-the-counter cold medication like Sudafed, with common chemicals like iodine, rock slat, battery acid, camping fuel and drain cleaner. Recipes are available on the Internet. While opium and heroin production are poverty based, amphetamine production is based solely on greed and therefore is regarded as more difficult to control.

Making methamphetamine can be very dangerous. Explosion resulting from carelessly cooked ingredients can blow a house to smithereens. Every year there a couple hundred such explosions in the United States, resulting in a handful of the deaths, including children of mom and pop meth producers. One explosion from a makeshift lab set up in a hotel room caused the destruction of the entire hotel. Efforts to combat the manufacturing of the drug in the United States have focused on making it difficult to purchase large quantities of ephedrine-based cold medicines in drug stores and supermarkets.

In Asia, it has become increasingly popular to smoke methamphetamines sold in pill, powder or crystalline form. Describing what that is like, former heavy user Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time, “I inhaled the smoke from smoothed-out tinfoil sheets folded in two, holding a lighter beneath the foil so that the shards of shabu liquified, turning a thick, pungent, milky vapor. The smoke tasted like a mixture of turpentine and model glue: to this day I can’t smell paint thinner without thinking of smoking speed.”

Amphetamine Abusers in Japan

In 2000, 19,156 people were arrested for violating the Stimulant Control Act, 28.6 percent more than in 1994. One 51-year Japanese man use told the Los Angeles Times he used amphetamines for more than 30 years and said the drug had such a hold on him he took money earmarked for his mother’s funeral and used it to buy drugs.

One 34-year-old as station worker, who been arrested several times for using amphetamines told the Japan Times, "I was like a complete slave, doing anything to get the ¥20,000 [$170] to buy stimulants that I needed everyday to get by. He said he stole money from his parents and neighbors to support his habit. "Even before my first arrest, I tried to quit using the drug so many times, only to learn how vulnerable I was to stimulants.”

Addicts have traditionally been treated, often unsuccessfully, at mental institutions. Self-help groups made up of former addicts and drug addiction rehabilitation centers are relatively new ideas in Japan.

Describing users in Tokyo, Karl Taro Greenfield wrote in his book “Speed Tribes”, “Trey, my fellow magazine nearly 40. He still takes speed — or Ritalin or cocaine or whichever upper he can get his hands on — and hasn’t had a job in years, Delphine gave up modeling after a few years and soon was accepting money to escort wealthy businessmen around Tokyo. She finally ended up working as a prostitute. Hirko did stop taking drugs. She had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and currently believes that drastic plastic surgery is the solution to her problems. Miki has been arrested in Japan and he U.S. on drug charges and is now on parole, living in Tokyo. And Haru, the drug dealer, I hear he’s dead.”

In October 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Traces of stimulant drugs were detected in the urine of a 1-year-old boy at a hospital in Kodaira, western Tokyo. According to the police, the boy was taken to the hospital by his mother late one night. She said the boy was "not feeling well." The mother reportedly said she "didn't know" how stimulants could have been detected in the boy's urine. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 17, 2012]

According to senior police officials, the 20-month-old boy lives with his mother and a male cohabitant.After traces of stimulants were detected in the boy's urine, the hospital reported the matter to the police. The boy was hospitalized for treatment and placed under protective custody by a child consultation center after he recovered. Police searched the boy's home in Kiyose, western Tokyo, but did not find any stimulants or other illegal drugs, the police said.

Amphetamines Trafficking in Japan

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In 1999 the volume of stimulant drugs confiscated by police peaked at 1,975 kilograms compared to just 217 kilograms in 1989. Since then seizures of the drug have dropped off, falling to 437 kilograms in 2002 and 136 kilograms in 2006. Police estimate they only seize about 10 percent of the amphetamines smuggled into the country.

In April 2008, a 28-year-old Canadian nursing school student was arrested on drug smuggling charges at Kansai Airport when seven kilograms of stimulant drugs worth ¥420 million, were found in the false bottoms of two suitcases. It was largest drug haul at a Japanese airport. The woman said she bought the suitcases in Canada and didn’t know they had drugs inside them.

In November 2008, 300 kilograms of stimulants drugs were found in a cargo ship that entered Moji Port in Kitakyushu

About 119 kilograms of stimulated sized at Narita in the first six months of 2011, including some hidden in a wheelchair and some in or chocolate-coated cookies. The smugglers usually claim they are innocent and say the drugs were planted on them.

Kyodo reported: Japanese police detected 186 stimulant drug smuggling cases 2011, up 40.9 percent from the previous year, the National Police Agency said. Among them, 151 cases were committed by drug couriers, who attempted to smuggle drugs using double-bottomed suitcases or by swallowing them, according to the NPA.

In one case, a Cameroonian was arrested trying to smuggle 1.3 kilograms of drugs, having swallowed them in 65 capsules. A Nigerian, believed to be the consignee of the drugs, was also arrested along with the courier. Among 131 drug couriers arrested between January and November, 27 said they were approached by Nigerians, prompting the NPA to suspect that smuggling cases involving Nigerians must be increasing.

China and Amphetamines Trafficking in Japan

A total of 51 percent of the stimulants seized between 1998 and 2002 (1,789 kilograms) came from China. Much of the trade is believed to be controlled by alliances between Chinese triads and the yakuza. The yakuza also controls much of the amphetamines trade in Hawaii. In 1999, a number of Chinese were arrested on ships that transported amphetamines into Japan. Some of the drugs are thought to have been manufactured in jungle labs in Myanmar.

Japanese have been arrested in Shanghai trying to smuggle stimulants into Japan. Many were homeless people hired by criminal gangs to smuggle in the drugs. One man arrested in Shanghai with 1.5 kilograms of stimulants said he was approached at a park in Tokyo and told he would be given $2,000 plus a fake passport and travel expenses if he picked up a package in China.

Chinese have been arrested trying to smuggle stimulant drugs into Japan. Two Chinese men was arrested at a hotel in Osaka where a package, labeled as containing an ornamental stone pillar for a garden, containing 23.6 kilograms of stimulant drugs, was sent.

Hong Kong triads have smuggled stimulant drugs into Japan by sending drugs in normal sea or air packages to receivers waiting in Japan. Between April and August 2007, eight members of two Hong Kong gangs were arrested and 96.6 kilograms of methamphetamine, with a street value of ¥5.7 billion was seized.

In February 2009, nine Chinese were arrested in connection with attempting to pick up 120 kilograms of stimulant at a port in Kochi Prefecture.

Execution of Japanese Drug Smugglers in China

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In April 2010, four Japanese men convicted of drug smuggling charges in China were executed. All four men were caught trying to smuggle or sell more than one kilogram of illegal drugs — in most cases, amphetamines. They included 65-year-old Mitsunobu Akano who was caught with 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine as he tried to board a plane to Japan at China’s Dalian airport in September 2006. In China, people caught smuggling over one kilogram of drugs are often executed.

The executions marked the first time that Japanese nationals were executed in Japan since China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. The Chinese government went somewhat out of its way to make sure the executions did not harm Japan - China relations. Akano was allowed to meet with his family before he was executed, which normally is not done. All the Japanese are believed to have been killed by lethal injection.

The arrest of these men didn’t seem to deter other Japanese from trying to smuggle druhs from China to Japan In March 2010, a 28-year-old man was arrested at Shenyang Airport trying to smuggle about one kilogram of amphetamines to Japan. In July 2009, three Japanese men were arrested at Dalian Airport on drug trafficking charges.

North Korea, Japan and Amphetamines Trafficking

The source of much of the illegal methamphetamines sold in Japan in the late 1990s and early 2000s is believed to have been North Korea. It widely believed that Pyongyang supplied the yakuza and Japanese Korean gangs that distributes the drugs in Japan. The amount of amphetamines entering Japan from North Korea increased 21-fold between 1998 and 2002. In 1998 and 1999 alone, Japanese authorities seized 500 kilograms of North Korean amphetamines, a third of all stimulant seizures in that period.

North Korea reportedly runs industrial scale methamphetamine production centers. Authorities have traced orders of 50 tons of ephedrine — the key ingredient for amphetamines — to North Korean front companies. Analyst concluded that either a lot of North Koreans were suffering from colds (ephedrine is also used in cold remedies) or they were producing a lot of methamphetamines. Fifty tons of ephedrine is enough to make 40 tons or $8 billion worth fo methamphetamines.

In the late 1990s, police in Japan found 70 kilograms of illegal methamphetamines, with a street value of $100 million, in jars of honey shipped to Japan on a North Korean freighter. Police arrested the captain of the ship and Korean residents who tried to pick up the drugs in Japan. Authorities checked the honey because the were wondering why a country in the midst of a famine was exporting food. On another occasion 99 kilograms of North Korean amphetamines was found hidden in a cargo of shellfish on a Chinese freighter. The vessel had made a stop in North Korea before arriving in Japan.

A total of 35 percent of the stimulants seized between 1998 and 2002 (1,232 kilograms) came from North Korea, compared to 51 percent from China. Between 1998 and 2002, there were five known cases of amphetamines being smuggled into Japan from North Korea by North Korea vessels, making drop offs at sea to Japanese, or on Chinese fishing boats. Between 150 kilograms and 550 kilograms was involved in each drop.

In August 1998, a Japanese smuggling group rendezvoused with a North Korean vessel in international waters in the East China Sea and picked up 300 kilograms of stimulants. The Japanese smugglers were caught with drugs off Kochi prefecture. The same year, police in Japan retrieved 200 kilograms of methamphetamines floating in the ocean that were intended be picked up later by Japanese smugglers. Chemical analysis linked the drugs to North Korea.

A major North Korean smuggling ring was discovered and disrupted in May 2006. Four Japanese were found guilty of smuggling amphetamines into Japan from North Korea — including a 68-year-old gangster connected to the Matsuba-kai yakuza gang — were given prison sentences of between 11 and 20 years.

The price of stimulant drugs skyrocketed after the smuggling operation from North Korea was shut down. After that the quality of the drugs dropped markedly and large amounts of high-quality drugs began coming in from China. In the early 2000s the price of a kilogram of high-quality meth was around ¥6 million or ¥7 million. By 2007 it was around ¥15 million.

Image Sources: DEA

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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