Prescription for Arrest: Japan’s Drug Laws Snare Foreigners

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The arrest of a high-profile Toyota Motor Corp. executive yesterday highlights the danger globetrotters can face bringing psychotropic or other medications into nations where they’re banned.

Julie Hamp, named Toyota’s first woman managing officer in April, faces drug-smuggling charges after having oxycodone pills sent to her from the U.S., said a spokesman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, declining to be named on policy grounds. Her arrest was front-page news, coming amid a widely publicized crackdown on the sale of mood-altering herbs that previously fell outside Japan’s strict laws against recreational drugs.

Hamp denies that she imported illegal drugs, the police spokesman said.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda called Hamp an “invaluable” staff member and said the automaker is confident she didn’t intend to break Japanese law. Toyota will work with police on the investigation, he said today at a briefing in Tokyo.

The carmaker may not have done enough to support Hamp in a recent move to Japan from her previous position at the company’s U.S. unit, Toyoda said.

The incident illustrates the different perceptions of drugs such as oxycodone, an opioid pain medication, which are more casually prescribed in the U.S. No matter how routine at home, the use of psychotropic drugs is strictly controlled in Japan and foreign visitors need to be careful, says Robert Dujarric, a director at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies of Temple University.

Addiction Concern

“It’s considered by the authorities as equivalent to a friend mailing you in the U.S. with opium from Afghanistan,” Dujarric said by phone in Tokyo. “Psychotropic medicines as well as prescription drugs that are legal in the U.S. are illegal in Japan,” where there’s stronger concern about addiction, he said.

Temple University is particular in warning its overseas students in Japan against drug abuse, Dujarric said, adding that penalties for possession of so-called recreational drugs can be severe.

Earlier this year, Carrie Russell of the U.S. was detained for 18 days after her mother mailed her an amphetamine medication for attention-deficit disorder. The 26-year-old English teacher was released in March only after a personal appeal from Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.

The U.S. embassy in Tokyo warns its citizens to check before mailing or carrying medication to Japan, or face arrest and detention. The embassy lists codeine among those banned.

Banned Drugs

Alongside heroin, amphetamines and cannabis, Japan bans stimulants such as pseudoephedrine “including in their pharmaceutical form,” according to the health ministry. The stimulants have been used in western cold and flu remedies.

Individuals who require medication that’s not approved for use in Japan can seek approval to import it by applying to the ministry with a written authorization from a doctor, according to the ministry’s website, which lists oxycodone among banned substances. Applications are processed in two weeks.

Japan, a nation of 127 million, charged 13,121 individuals with drug crimes last year, of whom 778 , or 5.9% were foreigners, according to national police data. More than 80 percent of the crimes involved methamphetamines.

The same year, cases of drug smuggling rose 11 percent to 245, according to police data, which doesn’t indicate how many cases involved prescription medicines.

It’s possible that illegal imports of painkillers and other drugs are increasing, and police decided to send a strong message with the arrest of Hamp, Dujarric said.

“It’s either a strong message or there’s something else behind the story.”