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Japan’s Drug War: The Case of Ingrid Martinussen

SNA (Tokyo) — On November 20, 2019, Tokyo police arrested a drug suspect. This time it was a 32-year-old Norwegian university student named Ingrid Martinussen, who is autistic. This case is a crystal clear example of Japan’s irrational approach to its war on drugs and of a legal system which has spun out of control.

When events overtook her, Ingrid was completing the final year of her master’s degree in Global Environmental Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. She is particularly interested in the study of insects, and it is said that her eyes light up when she speaks about them. Stian Smakic Sopp, a student leader in Japan who befriended Ingrid, describes her as “one of the most kind-hearted, humble, and kindred spirits I have ever met” and a person who endeavors never to cause discomfort or to hurt the people, animals, and world around her. By all accounts, Ingrid is not an illegal drug user, and in fact never consumes even legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

In other words, Ingrid Martinussen seems a very unlikely candidate for a criminal conspiracy to import illegal drugs into Japan. So what actually happened here?

The story, it turns out, relates to cookies. An American friend that Ingrid had known for some years posted pictures of baked cookies on her Twitter account and Ingrid was impressed with their artistry. She asked her friend to send some of the cookies to her temporary address in Japan, where Ingrid was housesitting for another friend who had pets that needed caring for. All of the communication was handled via Twitter and its direct messaging function.

The cookies Ingrid admired

This package, however, was intercepted by customs agents in April. They discovered that baked into the three cookies that had been sent from the United States was a small amount of marijuana. Police opted to treat this as a major drugs importation case.

Months later, on November 12, the net came down on the first suspect. The friend for whom Ingrid who had been housesitting, who had absolutely no knowledge about any of the relevant facts, and wasn’t even in the country at the time in question, was arrested by police at the airport as she was returning to Japan.

As the friend later described her experience in custody to Sopp: “The interrogations took place up to three times a day, with each round of interrogation taking up to several hours. The strap around her waist, by her described as a corset, was tightened so hard that it became difficult to breathe. Several times, she thought she was about to be rendered unconscious. She tried to use what little breath she had to tell the prison guards that the strap was too tight so she could not breathe, but they didn’t seem to care. The guards would tighten the strap further as they pleased. She was handcuffed in a way that left wounds on her wrists. At times, she was also locked in what she describes as a box. If detainees screamed or cried out in pain, they would be put in solitary isolation.”

Police released the friend after eight days of this sort of treatment, and she had been rendered absolutely terrified of the Japanese legal system, not wanting to get involved in any way.

The same day she was released, police arrested Ingrid, whom they now suspected was the intended recipient of the April package.

The police were correct that the package with the three marijuana-laced cookies had been sent to Ingrid, but their investigations should have immediately proven her innocence as well. The police obtained the full record of communications through Twitter between Ingrid and her friend in America, both the public tweets and the direct messages, and they show conclusively that drugs were never discussed, and that as far as Ingrid knew, she was just being sent some beautiful baked cookies.

Common sense and decency should have therefore led to Ingrid’s very quick release, but instead it seems that police decided to take another tack, which was to hold Ingrid in detention for something near the full maximum of 23 days and to try the break the will of their autistic inmate, getting her to “confess” to a crime for which they already possessed credible exculpatory evidence. If anyone was guilty, it appeared to be Ingrid’s American friend who accidentally or intentionally put some marijuana in the three cookies, but she was out of Japan’s reach, and Ingrid was the only one in their hands that they could still try to punish for this victimless and trivial drug crime.

Lawyers say that if Ingrid is charged, which seems unlikely based on the facts of the case, she faces 3-to-11 years in Japanese prison and a 99% conviction rate.

What makes this case even worse is that Ingrid is a true friend of Japan, becoming fluent in the language and wanting to spend much of her life in the country. Police have engaged in psychological torture of a woman who has a strong and genuine commitment to Japan, and whom they must know is innocent of this crime.

Observers may have their own interpretations of the facts of Ingrid’s individual case, but it highlights serious problems in Japan’s drug war and its criminal procedures.

As for the drug war, it should be pointed out that scientific studies have already proven that marijuana poses a smaller public health risk than legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol. There is a distinct irrationality and injustice to the fact that someone like Ingrid is treated as a dangerous criminal to be sternly interrogated by day, and each night her interrogators likely get together and consume more dangerous drugs than the three marijuana-laced cookies she is accused of trying to import into Japan.

It is also a horribly misplaced set of priorities for law enforcement. Bear in mind that in Japan, it is fundamentally the bureaucratic police agencies themselves that set their own enforcement priorities, not necessarily demands from lawmakers and democratic representatives.

As for criminal procedures, it is yet another case that, should it receive due attention, would embarrass Japan’s legal system before the entire developed world. As others have pointed out, the incentives of Japan’s legal system seem to be directed at getting convictions rather than ensuring that justice is done. Japan may be a developed nation in terms of its economy, but its legal system functions more like that of a developing world dictatorship, riddled with abuse, corruption, and political favoritism.


A visibly exhausted Ingrid left detention after twenty days on December 10, immediately calling her family in Norway to let them know she was okay. Allowed a shower only once in five days, she first wanted to get cleaned up and see her pet bird.

Police seemed to have finally acknowledged that Ingrid had nothing whatsoever to do with the marijuana found in the package, and the case was expected to be closed.

Ingrid had been a great fan of Japan, but told the media upon her release, “It has always been my dream to stay here, but after processing what has happened, I may not want to stay here.” She still had her graduate degree to finish at at Sophia University.

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