Pot Bust Scandal for Japan's Sumo Wrestling

Positive pot tests part of first drug scandal in sumo's 2,000-year history.


Sept. 2, 2008 — -- Two Russian sumo wrestlers tested positive for marijuana use in Japan less than a month after a fellow Russian wrestler was arrested for possession of pot, the country's association of sumo wrestlers said today.

It's the first drug scandal in the roughly 2,000 year history of sumo wrestling and the latest in a rising number of marijuana incidents in Japan, a country with harsh penalties for drug offenders.

Nihon Sumo Kyokai, the Japanese sumo wrestlers association, announced today that urine samples of Russian brothers Soslan "Roho" Feliksovich Baradzov and Batraz "Hakurozan" Feliksovich Baradzov showed the presence of marijuana. The news came amid a police investigation of another Russian wrestler, Soslan "Wakanoho" Aleksandrovich Gagloev, who was arrested for illegal use and possession of cannabis last month.

"They should be thoroughly tested if the initial urine test turned out to be positive," said Toshimitsu Kitanoumi, the chairman of the sumo association, following the unprecedented screening of 69 high-ranking wrestlers, including two Mongolian grand champions -- Asashoryu and Hakuho. The two Russians were the only positive results.

The 26-year-old Hakurozan -- the sumo name the Russian uses professionally -- is from Kitanoumi's stable of wrestlers, putting the chairman in an uncomfortable position in his role as head of the sumo association.

"Hakurozan told me he wants a thorough investigation to wipe out every possible allegation against him," Kitanoumi told Japanese reporters. "If they are suspected, they should be examined further."

After the urine test, both Hakurozan and his 28-year-old brother, Roho, agreed voluntarily to be interviewed by the National Police Agency. The police investigation is under way. No charges have been filed against them.

On Aug. 18, Japanese police arrested 20-year-old Russian wrestler, Wakanoho, for illegal possession of cannabis. The association fired Wakanoho three days after his arrest and banned the wrestler from the world of sumo for life. Wakanoho's supervisor, 55-year-old Katsuharu Magaki of Magaki Stable, took a pay cut of nearly 30 percent.

According to police, Wakanoho said he obtained a cigarette containing marijuana from a foreigner he met at a disco in Roppongi in central Tokyo. Police also seized a couple of pipes and other items that may contain marijuana from the wrestler's apartment and his room at a sumo stable in Tokyo. That led both police and the association to investigate whether there is habitual use of marijuana among wrestlers at sumo stables.

"Marijuana and other drugs are not as foreign to ordinary people as they used to be, even in Japan," said Tsuneo Kondo, the director of Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center in Tokyo. "Many of us once thought only outlaws would use drugs but that reality is long gone -- we see users coming from different corners of life. They can be college students or house wives."

Marijuana-related arrests have been on the rise in Japan in recent years, according to a report compiled by the National Police Agency. Between January and June 2008, police made 1,686 arrests involving marijuana -- the highest in history and an increase of 9.1 percent. from the same period in the previous year.

Most of those arrested were first-time offenders in their 20s and 30s. The report also mentioned a surge in cases of home grown marijuana. In many cases, people grow the plant inside their closets or balconies for personal use.

Possession of marijuana is illegal in Japan, punishable by up to five years in prison with forced labor. Foreigners convicted of such crimes can face deportation and a lifetime ban from the country.

However, a loophole in the law allows people to purchase and possess marijuana seeds. A packet of 10 marijuana seeds can be bought online for $80 to $400.

"Firing wrestlers will not solve the problem," said Kondo a former drug addict who has worked with more than 2,000 other addicts in the past 23 years since he opened DARC. "You need to find out why they resorted to such action. They were brought to Japan to be part of Japanese society, and they committed the crime in Japan. We are partly responsible for what they have become. We should at least try to help them with their recovery initially instead of sending them straight back to where they came from and say goodbye."

Kondo said his center has seen more young people, especially in their 20s, seeking help in the past few years.

"Many come because of marijuana," Kondo said. "Working with them is not always easy because they do not necessarily think the use of marijuana is bad. They do not call it a drug, they call it a plant."

Both easy travel to foreign countries and easy access at home contributed to the rise of drug use in the country, including marijuana, according to Kondo.

"Drugs are in the country. That is a fact. We cannot turn back the clock. Treating users as outcasts will not stop the spread of drugs. We need a systematic and comprehensive approach to work with users and to help them get rid of their habit," Kondo said. "It is no longer a foreign thing. It really can happen to anyone."

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