Japanese medical marijuana activist Masamitsu Yamamoto died Monday of liver failure while awaiting trial for cannabis possession, a crime that carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison. He was 58.
Yamamoto, a former chef, was a law-abiding citizen until he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2010. As the cancer progressed, he underwent painful and costly procedures in an attempt to stop the tumors from spreading. Cannabis, he said at a court hearing last month, was a treatment of last resort.
“I once paid ¥2.5 million [$24,400] for so-called immunotherapy,” Yamamoto told the Japan Times. “I spent about ¥7 million [$68,400] in total for my cancer treatment. I’m broke.”
When he first sought to use cannabis treatment, Yamamoto reached out to Japan’s health, justice, and agricultural ministries in an effort to obtain legal access to medicine or to participate in clinical trials. But Japan’s law on cannabis is clear: Medical research on marijuana remains illegal, and the possession of even small amounts of cannabis is punishable by a five-year minimum prison sentence. Cultivation carries a seven-year minimum.
Nevertheless, Yamamoto began growing cannabis plants at home for personal use and saw a marked improvement in his condition. Tumor markers in his body dropped to one-twentieth their previous levels, and Yamamoto’s suicidal thoughts subsided.
Then, in December of last year, he was stopped for questioning and arrested in Tokyo. When law enforcement searched his home, they discovered the cannabis plants and confiscated 200 grams of homegrown cannabis.
After his arrest, Yamamoto’s condition steadily worsened. In the months leading up to his trial, he refused to stay silent and spoke out to the media in the hopes of provoking public debate on the topic of medical marijuana.
His efforts won the attention of nonprofit organization Iryo Taima wo Kangaeruka (Japan Medical Marijuana Association), which supported him during the trial. The group hoped the trial could help open the door to broader acceptance of medical cannabis.
“No other marijuana trials in Japan’s history had dug this deep into the validity of marijuana as a cancer treatment,” said the organization’s Hideo Nagayoshi, author of Taima Nyumon (An Introduction to Cannabis).
During the trial, Dr. Kazunori Fukuda, a former division head for the National Cancer Center, testified as an expert witness and noted the growing acceptance of medical marijuana overseas. The judge was intrigued by the testimony and reportedly wanted to hear more, but the defendant’s death means the trial will be dismissed and the tough questions raised during the course of the trial will go unanswered. “It’s really regrettable,” Nagayoshi said.
Yamamoto last appeared in court on July 12 in a wheelchair. His trial would have concluded next week.
“I have two sons. I could’ve just kept the case to myself instead of going public, but I thought that it would be a good opportunity to discuss this issue in society,” he said during one of his final interviews. “As long as there are people whose lives have been saved by medical marijuana, research on it should be allowed. What is justice without life?”