Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents helped in the seizure of these marijuana plants, grown on the rooftop of a building in Okinawa City, in August.

Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents helped in the seizure of these marijuana plants, grown on the rooftop of a building in Okinawa City, in August. (Photo courtesy Okinawa Narcotics Control Office)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — In the last six months a special narcotics unit of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Okinawa has put a significant dent in the island’s illegal drug trade.

Working with Okinawa drug enforcement agents, the special operations team, consisting of three NCIS agents and two local Japanese Master Labor Contract employees assigned to the office, shut down a major marijuana operation in Okinawa City, where the rooftop of a building near Kadena Air Base had been turned into a marijuana garden.

“We got some good information from some of our sources and were able to work with the Okinawa Narcotics Control Office to seize 18 good-sized plants in August,” said Special Agent Brian Brittingham.

In addition to the plants seized from the Gate Two Street rooftop garden, the agents seized 228 grams (about 8 ounces) of marijuana-laced cookie dough. The “gardener” also owned a local spaghetti shop where the marijuana cookies were sold, Brittingham said.

Since March the team has helped to arrest more than 50 suspects, mostly Japanese selling to American servicemembers, and seized about $200,000 worth of narcotics, Brittingham said.

And the unit doesn’t limit its activities to Okinawa.

“We also helped with the seizure of 55 plants in Okayama Prefecture,” Brittingham said. Okayama is near Hiroshima and the Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Japan. The team also investigated cases involving cocaine, Ecstasy, illegal steroids and a designer drug called AMT (alpha-methyltryptamine), a hallucinogen.

“The special operations unit goes anywhere in the Far East, before major deployments,” said Joe Kennedy, NCIS Okinawa’s supervisory special agent. “At the last Balikatan exercise, in the Philippines, we assisted in the arrest of 25 individuals and seized some drugs and vehicles.

“We go in before the actual exercise and work with local police to identify local drug dealers who want to seek out our servicemen,” Kennedy said. “These guys have done a great job. We’ve got a special ops unit here that’s taking a proactive approach. They’re not just sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring. They’re out there turning over the rocks.”

The effort paid off in October when the unit was cited for the Philippines operation by the International Narcotics Officers’ Enforcement Association during the association’s annual conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Local police also have high praise for the unit.

Masaaki Sunakozawa, director of the Okinawa Narcotics Control Office of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, said that his office enjoys the close working relations with NCIS.

“It is working very well,” he said during a phone interview.

He said in the case involving the spaghetti restaurant, the initial information provided by military personnel to NCIS led to the arrests.

“There are many more marijuana cases on Okinawa compared to mainland Japan, where 90 percent of drug cases involve stimulant substances,” Sunakozawa said. “Here on Okinawa, marijuana involves about 50 percent of all drug cases while the rest involves stimulants.”

Sunakozawa said the Okinawa dealers have switched to homegrown marijuana since customs police have become adept at identifying and seizing shipments from overseas.

“As a recent trend, seeds are smuggled in, instead of the plants,” he said.

“They obtain seeds through [the] Internet and grow their own plants outside or even inside the house. In such cases, a sighting of the plants by neighbors is one way to find the illegal plants.”

But marijuana use is not common in Japan, he said, and many Okinawans don’t know what marijuana looks like. To the untrained eye, a marijuana plant can look like any other green plant in a pot.

“On the other hand, American people in general have good knowledge about the plants,” he said. “I understand educational activities for the prevention of drug abuse start at an early age,” he said. “Information from Americans is, therefore, very helpful.”

“To achieve our common goal, we would like to further promote our close working relations with NCIS,” Sunakozawa said.

“In my five years on Okinawa, the cooperation we have with our local counterparts is the best it’s ever been,” Brittingham said.

“This has been a joint effort — seamless law enforcement between our unit and the Japanese,” Kennedy said. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without their help.

“Our message is that for every ounce of drugs we get to first, is another ounce that doesn’t make it to the hands of our troops, civilians or family members,” Kennedy said.

The unit also spends time giving educational briefings to various commands concerning Okinawa’s drug scene.

“Generally, Okinawa is a pretty safe environment, but there are still dangers out there,” Brittingham said. “So we try to tell people to not be lulled to sleep because it is such a safe place. Don’t fall asleep completely: Be mindful, and be observant.”

And call NCIS if you see anything suspicious, Kennedy added.

“Anyone with information regarding drug activity is urged to call us at 645-0213.”

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