The man behind the counter, who calls himself Carlos, offers a baggie full of dried Mexican sage. "Just like pot," he says, "only more hallucinations." In his head shop, located on the eighth floor of a nondescript building, kids too young to drive peruse blown-glass pipes and Moroccan hookahs. A display case holds eight metal saucers with different powders fashionable at raves and clubs the world over. One of them, called alpha-methyltryptamine, or AMT, "is just like mushrooms," Carlos offers. Another, blue mystic, reputedly mimics the effects of ecstasy and LSD.
Amsterdam? Maybe. But Tokyo? Long known for its no-nonsense drug enforcement, Japan is in the midst of a psychedelic summer. Most of the fantasy fuels remain legal because of loopholes in local drug laws. Even contraband is easily procured. Nearly every weekend barefoot ravers flock to the slopes of Mount Fuji to trip all night and view the peak at dawn. Could this be the country that jailed Paul McCartney in 1980 for stashing marijuana in his guitar case? Or recently threatened to bar Argentine football legend and convicted cocaine user Diego Maradona from entering the country to comment on the World Cup finals? None other, according to fliers for trance-music shows and new magazines that explain how best to cultivate and score various chemicals. One cover line captures the mood perfectly. It reads: drug happy brain!
The party was supposed to end on June 6, when Japan's Health Ministry banned "magic mushrooms." The fungus had been traded freely for more than a decade due to a loophole in the 1990 Narcotics Control Law that banned the sale of its active ingredient, psilocybin, but not commerce in the 'shrooms themselves. The oversight remained a secret guarded by aging hippies until the late 1990s, when head shops and street vendors sprouted up in Tokyo to peddle mushrooms for profit. Then came the overdoses, media attention and eventual revision of the law. But that has done little to stop the kids or the chemists. The Health Ministry's exasperation was apparent when it issued a statement in April saying, "The methods of abuse have become diverse and ingenious, and we can make no guess about how we should respond to that."
A cornucopia of mind-bending substances remain legal in Japan. Rave enthusiasts go for variants of ecstasy and mushrooms. Three thousand yen, or about $25, garners 15 milligrams of AMT, which users snort cocaine style or drink with liquid. For one of Japan's cheapest highs, teenagers opt for an amber liquid marketed variously as warp speed, rave or hop. But real bargain hunters buy it in its original form as VCR head cleaner. Blue mystic, a.k.a. tweetybird mescaline, will be added to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's list of controlled substances this week after being linked to several deaths in the States. It remains legal in Japan.
The popularity of legal hallucinogens hasn't dented a thriving illicit-drug trade. Most addicts in Japan inhale solvents or pop methamphetamines, called shabu. A recent U.S. government survey of drug trends in Asia estimated that more than 2 million Japanese use shabu, and some 600,000 are hooked. In Shibuya, Tokyo's supreme teen hangout, dealers sell pot and cocaine on the street with scant fear of arrest. Keiji Oda, founder of the Guardian Angels in Japan, estimates that dealers sell upwards of $50,000 worth of drugs every night on a single block of the neighborhood. Cops are hamstrung when it comes to making actual arrests, says Hiroshi Kubo, a journalist in Tokyo: "Because of laws, police cannot search drug dealers without consent."
By all accounts, Tokyo's drug culture is in full bloom. The marijuana leaf now competes with Hello Kitty for T-shirt space in teenage closets. Drug imagery has crept into rap lyrics. And among today's trendiest bands are acts like AMT and the Dope Fiends. In one downtown McDonald's recently, three teenage boys prepared to toke a marijuana substitute in a nearby park. One, sporting a David Beckham Mohawk, betrayed a nervousness he shared with his friends. "We don't know what it's going to do to us," he said. With the marketplace for drugs moving faster than government officials, Japan's teenagers will still be experimenting long after summer has gone.