Around 10 pm on the evening of February 20, I made my way through Hachiko Square, scanning the crowd for two American friends visiting from South Korea, where they teach English. At last I spotted Carrie Russell, 26, a fellow Oregonian with whom I’d attended high school. She, her travel companion, Susan Rousan, and I navigated Shibuya Crossing to an izakaya—a favorite of Tokyoites on Friday nights.
Over several plates of steaming this and fried that, we gabbed about our years abroad. Carrie had just acquired her working visa in Japan—a dream come true for her—and was preparing to move. Susan hoped to follow suit.
“Carrie-san, Susan-san, police. You need to come with us.”
While Carrie and Susan recalled their day at Tokyo Disneyland, I noticed a group of five tall Japanese men and one short lady, all wearing plain windbreakers and sporting blank lanyards, approaching our table. I felt increasingly uncomfortable as their elevator eyes and whispers became more prominent. I was ready to comment when all revealed gold badges and said,
“Carrie-san, Susan-san, police. You need to come with us.”
My heart was in my throat. Carrie, wide-eyed, clumsily fumbled for her things, hands trembling. The lady, a translator for the police, spoke quickly to usher them along. I attempted to steady my voice, trying to promise them that things would be okay. The police apologized profusely to me for “ruining [my] dinner party,” as the now deathly quiet izakaya listened intently. With a twinge of guilt, I thanked my lucky stars.
As Susan recounted later, “We were squeezed into an elevator all together…on the street, Carrie was put into a government van, and I took a taxi with [a policeman] to the station.” The translator inquired if she knew of COR136. She didn’t. But in a separate interrogation room, Carrie admitted that she knew.
COR 136 is the code printed on the little pink pill known as Adderall, a 30 mg pill distributed by Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals in the United States. It has been prescribed to Carrie since she was 7 years old, when she was initially diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. She takes the supplement daily to help mediate her condition.
In Japan, this particular drug is illegal.
Once her questioning concluded, Susan was released and driven to her guesthouse around three in the morning. She messaged me that Carrie was facing charges and would be transferred to a Nagoya detention center. She hadn’t seen her, but had heard her shout through the car window to “call [her] parents.”
I contacted her father and they in turn reached out to the US Embassy, who had not yet been alerted by the Japanese police that an American was being detained. According to the State Department, the detainee must request that their consulate be contacted upon arrest within the first 24 hours.
Carrie’s mother, a physician in Oregon, had been mailing prescription refills of the medicine in care packages to her daughter in South Korea over the past couple of years. Because she had grown accustomed to the arrangement, Carrie didn’t think twice before she slipped a container of them—180 pills, a 6-month supply, tucked into an old Tylenol bottle—into a box of things she was shipping to Japan. The disguise was something her mom had taught her to do, as reported by The Oregonian, to protect her from thieves aware of Adderall’s high street value.
The box was mailed to her new address in Nagoya, Japan—the current home of Malia Autio, a mutual friend who was moving back to Oregon.
Under 21 U.S.C. 801, with further restrictions and applications under both 21 CFR 1300 and 18 U.S.C. 1716, it is illegal to send prescription drugs through domestic and international mail within and from the United States. Only approved pharmaceuticals and license-holding distributors and receivers may ship and receive approved drugs. Similar restrictions apply even for over-the-counter medication, and comparable laws exist in most countries, including Japan.
When the box arrived at customs, it was set on a scanner to check for illicit substances. An alarm went off, the box was opened, the pills were swapped with dummies, and the box continued on its way. Malia accepted the package, and “placed it next to [her] front door.” Her acceptance finalized the journey, solidifying a case for “drug smuggling.” She continued about her business, unaware that in a couple days, on an otherwise ordinary morning, twenty policemen would barge in, raiding her apartment to sweep for drugs.
“I was taken in for interrogation for nearly 9 hours…they took me to sushi for lunch and the experience was smooth,” she said. “A translator was present and they treated me fairly.” Those around her noted she was calm after the incident, and she returned to work the next day. Others questioned in relation to the case had a similar experience—the interactions long and productive, but polite and accompanied with refreshments.
Now, nearly three weeks later, the family has a lawyer and a consulate member working hard to negotiate for Carrie’s release. While solitary confinement is deemed a normal treatment of foreigners in Japan, visitors are allowed.
There is a reason for the fuss.
After being widely used by the Japanese military and their allies through WWII, all stimulants were banned by the government in 1951 after it was revealed that it was devastatingly addictive.
Adderall, a medication that contains amphetamines, is intended to help patients concentrate and improve their learning abilities. Methamphetamine, a compound that amphetamine metabolizes into within the human body, is known colloquially as speed in the U.S. and “shabu” in Japan. It was first synthesized by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893. After being widely used by the Japanese military and their allies through WWII, all stimulants were banned by the government in 1951 after it was revealed that it was devastatingly addictive. Since then, a zero tolerance drug policy has since been instilled by the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry. Updates to the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act in 2014 spurred a spike in drug-related arrests across Japan. Against a population of 127.3 million, 9,300 people were arrested and charged with drug abuse (340 for prescription medication). In contrast, in the U.S. in 1999, out of a population of 318 million, a total of 1.5 million had been arrested (82% for prescription drug abuse).
Western experts believe 5% of children globally suffer from ADD/ADHD, but diagnoses in Japan are low. Adderall was first introduced to the market in 1996, and has since been slapped with numerous toxin warnings and sends 20,000 patients to the ER every year. Given the potential for abuse, and the fact that one of the drug’s side effects is depression, the Japanese health care system is unlikely to advocate for it. When patients in Japan are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, they are prescribed Concerta, which employs the amphetamine substitute methylphenidate, which has lower rates of addiction and abuse.
The country keeps very tight reins on drug policy, rarely letting anyone slip through the cracks, so as to uphold the integrity of the system they have instilled; an admirable and desirable status by other countries.
Visitors and foreigners looking to bring their prescription medicine into Japan are allowed to do so, but they must clear them with customs. It is possible to download the government’s application, the Yakkan-Shoumei. This permission allows visitors to bring up to one month’s worth of a prescription into Japan, pending approval. When traveling, it is always a good idea to keep medicine in a carry-on, with a doctor’s note alongside.
Although Carrie’s situation sounds grim—sympathy may only go so far in a tough legal system that is trimmed with red tape—there is hope. Foreigners who haven’t directly harmed Japanese citizens, or been charged with selling drugs, tend to be released at the end of their detainment period with a scuff on their record and heart, but intact. Thankfully for Carrie, the detainment period in Japan for foreigners without charges is 23 days. Her supporters are awaiting news expected on March 10.
Despite all of the hardship, terror, and interrogations, John Russell, Carrie’s father, says she “continues to hope and fight for her dream of working and living in Japan.”
Here’s to hoping that an innocent mistake will remain just that.[Update: as of this afternoon, Carrie was released from the holding facility and will be returning to the U.S. tomorrow, March 11.]