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"Legal Drugs" in bright neon lettering entices patrons to a table in Tokyo's Roppongi bar district. Drugs such as "Foxy" and "AMT" may be legal in Japan, but they're not legal for U.S. servicemembers.
"Legal Drugs" in bright neon lettering entices patrons to a table in Tokyo's Roppongi bar district. Drugs such as "Foxy" and "AMT" may be legal in Japan, but they're not legal for U.S. servicemembers. (Doug Huddy / S&S)

ROPPONGI, Japan — A vendor shuffles in the cold beside a small rickety table on a crowded sidewalk in Roppongi. In Tokyo’s foreigner-friendly bar district, hundreds of people walk past on a typical night — including U.S. troops from local bases.

Two words in large psychedelic letters hope to grab their attention: legal drugs.

Small plastic vials with powders, pills and liquids promise to raise or lower energy, heighten sensations or induce hallucinations. The effects can last for hours and cost less than a dinner for two in Tokyo.

“That’s why we get the word out,” said Special Agent Anthony Love with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations detachment 621 at Yokota Air Base, Japan. “It actually says ‘legal drugs.’ Some people might think it’s safe.”

The drugs are synthetics, derivatives of other drugs that have been outlawed since the 1960s, said Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Jeff Rodriguez in Okinawa.

“They cause you to hallucinate and give the similar effects of mushrooms or LSD,” Rodriguez said.

A few new hallucinogens began to appear in Japan after the government outlawed hallucinogenic mushrooms two years ago, he said.

And like mushrooms, the new drugs are illegal for servicemembers and carry punishments as harsh as those for cocaine or marijuana.

What’s the deal?

Until 2002, mushrooms in Japan were sold through a legal loophole: The mushrooms were OK but not the active chemicals in them. In 2002, Japan closed the loophole and made mushrooms themselves illegal.

The new synthetic drugs, such as the tryptamine derivatives AMT and the so-called “Foxy Methoxy,” are similar. The drugs are sold as research chemicals not for consumption, and most packages will have a warning, though not in English, Rodriguez said.

Anything in Japan intended for consumption falls under strict pharmacy and food laws; because they’re for research, the drugs don’t.

Some retailers claim synthetic drugs are used as video player cleaners or aromatic substances, said Yasuo Iimura, pharmaceutical inspection division official at Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

“It is not illegal for people to possess or consume these elements,” he said.

Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration outlawed AMT and Foxy Methoxy. They remain available in Okinawa, Tokyo and most cities in Japan.

The two synthetic drugs aren’t the only two options in Japan. Head shops and sidewalk vendors offer a wide range of products with various effects.

One is a stimulant. Another a depressant. Others cause increased sensitivity to light and sound. Some induce hallucinations.

The strength, quality and effects vary for each.

That worries Japanese and U.S. investigators who are testing several products to detect if they are even drugs at all.

“They’re made by amateur chemists,” Love said. “We want to find out that they are what the vendors say they are.”

Rodriguez said NCIS is lobbying the Japanese government to outlaw the latest drugs.

U.S. investigators work closely with Japanese police to track new drugs and the places they’re sold, Love added.

Commands also hold periodic briefings and training to warn servicemembers about the safety and consequences of the drugs legal in their host nations, officials said.

Medical officials on the Korean peninsula say there isn’t a problem with the types of drugs found in Japan. But since drugstores sell medicines over the counter that would require a prescription on base or in the States, drugstores and pharmacies are off-limits, along with all South Korean drugs, medicines and pharmaceuticals.

Paying the piper

The consequences for taking the legal drugs are similar to those for illegal ones such as marijuana and LSD. All are off-limits to servicemembers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Yokota Air Base OSI agents recently ran a base announcement warning people that the legal drugs were spotted in Roppongi.

The warning didn’t follow any incidents, Love said, and no servicemembers have been caught taking or possessing these substances. But they are out there, and that threatens health and readiness.

“They’re probably more dangerous,” said Love, “than even (the popular rave drug) Ecstasy.”

Since new drugs are created so quickly, not all the drugs for sale in Japan have been outlawed in the United States. But they’re still off-limits to servicemembers, according to Maj. Marc G. Koblentz, chief of military justice for U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force.

UCMJ Article 112a outlaws a broad range of substances, including all scheduled classes of controlled substances and derivatives, according to Koblentz.

Bottom line: If a servicemember renders himself unfit for duty by the use of an intoxicating substance, he could be charged under the UCMJ.

The military cannot punish Defense Department civilians and family members for using legal drugs, but they can revoke command sponsorship, bar them from installations and report the instance to a government employer, Koblentz said.

Incidents for servicemembers are decided case by case, he said. Punishments vary from punitive discharges to confinement up to several years.

“You will face the same penalties as if you were smoking marijuana or using cocaine,” Rodriguez said.

The drugs can be detected by urinalysis, said Rodriguez, and claiming ignorance of the law doesn’t help.

“The compelling fact is that you had a controlled substance and you used it.”

— Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

Samples

Here are some of the drugs for sale in Japan identified by U.S. military investigators as dangerous. Two, AMT and Foxy, were placed on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s most serious illegal drug list, Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, last year.

• Alpha-methyltryptamine (AMT). Also known as “spirals” but well known as AMT.

• 5-MeO-DIPT (Foxy or Foxy Methoxy).

Both are tryptamine derivatives and have been found at raves and clubs in the United States for several years.

According to the DEA www.usdoj.gov/dea, users of tryptamines typically experience effects including hallucinations, euphoria, dilated pupils, empathy, visual and auditory disturbances/distortions, “feelings of love,” and emotional distress.

Some users may experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Tryptamines, including AMT and Foxy, are very dose dependent, meaning doubling a moderate dose could result in effects similar to LSD.

Effects from 20 mg of AMT usually last between 12 and 24 hours, while the effects from six to 10 mg of Foxy reportedly last from three to six hours.

• Gamma-Butyrolactone (GBL). A precursor to gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), the date-rape drug, it was outlawed in 2000.

Taken recreationally, GBL becomes GHB when the body’s metabolic process converts gamma butyrolactone to GHB after ingestion. The chemical is found in several supplements including the brand Revivarant. It’s marketed as both a stimulant and a sleep aid, and it can cause vomiting and other side effects.

GBL is mildly narcotic and an irritant to mucous membranes and skin, according to BASF Corp., a manufacturer. It’s used to make pesticides among other things, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

— Staff reports

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