In 2013/14, over a third of Australians in prison overseas were there because of drug offences. Australian travellers should never buy, use or travel with illegal drugs when overseas. Be aware that even small quantities of 'soft drugs' can attract jail sentences or heavy fines. Remember that when you are overseas you are subject to that country's laws and penalties - no matter how harsh they may appear by Australian standards. Don't become another Australian wasting years of their life in a foreign prison because of one bad decision.
Harsh penalties exist for drug offences
Many countries around the world can apply the death penalty to those convicted of using, dealing or trafficking drugs. These countries include destinations popular with Australian travellers, such as Indonesia, Thailand, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
There are currently a number of Australians in foreign countries who have been sentenced to death for drug offences. The Australian Government cannot override the laws and penalties imposed by another country, and it is very limited in its ability to appeal for clemency for Australians sentenced to death overseas.
In all cases, the risks of drug use and trafficking far outweigh any perceived benefits. Don't ever assume that you won't get caught, or that you might avoid the death penalty because you're Australian.
There is only one way to ensure that you will avoid the death penalty for drug offences overseas: do not ever purchase, use or carry drugs in a foreign country.
Be aware that many countries impose stiff penalties for possession of small quantities of illegal drugs. For example:
- In the UAE the presence of illegal drugs detected in blood or urine tests is considered possession, regardless of where or how long ago the drugs were originally consumed. You may also be charged with possessing drugs if trace amounts are found on your body, clothing or luggage. Amounts of 0.05 grams or less can lead to conviction. The UAE also has strict requirements on the importation of prescription medication.
- In some parts of the United States, penalties for drug-related offences, including marijuana use, are severe and provide for minimum mandatory prison sentences.
- In the Netherlands, possession or trafficking of any narcotics, including psychoactive mushrooms, will attract criminal penalties. In 2012, the Dutch Government introduced a law banning non-residents of the Netherlands from purchasing cannabis, including in designated premises.
- In Mexico, penalties for drug offences include long prison sentences in local jails. This may also include controlled medications if not purchased with a legal prescription.
- In Thailand and Indonesia, the possession of even small quantities of 'recreational drugs' can result in lengthy jail sentences, heavy fines and deportation.
- Being caught with drugs in China, even small amounts, will attract harsh sentences including the death penalty and life imprisonment.
Young travellers should also be aware that in certain countries juvenile offenders may be treated by the courts in the same way as adults, including China and the US.
Other things to consider
To not get into trouble with drugs overseas:
- Don’t carry or consume drugs overseas. Ever.
- While overseas avoid associating with people who use illegal drugs. If you have had personal trouble with drug addiction in the past you should consider carefully the implications of travelling to foreign locations where illicit drugs are readily available. Remember that foreign courts may not look sympathetically at a defence of addiction or impairment, as may be the case in Australia.
- Make sure that you are aware of the contents of all of your bags, particularly when crossing international borders. Do not carry anything for someone else while travelling. Do not leave your bags in public areas or in the care of a stranger. Lock your luggage as a precaution against tampering and theft. When travelling always check your baggage for signs of tampering when retrieving your baggage from carousels or hotel staff. Be wary of offers of new luggage or when using bags that do not belong to you. Illegal drugs have been found in suitcases won as 'prizes' in online competitions. You may not be able to see the drugs at first glance, however security detection systems are likely to find them.
- Be aware that some countries may seek to prosecute you for drug possession even if trace amounts are found in blood or urine tests, regardless of where the drugs were consumed. Remember that ignorance of these laws is no excuse. Research the laws applicable in your destination before travel or transit. Those caught will be subject to local laws, not those that would be applied for the same crime in Australia.
- Ensure that your prescription or over-the-counter medicines are not considered illegal drugs in the countries you are visiting by contacting the embassy of the countries you are visiting before you depart. General information on restrictions on prescription or over-the-counter medicines is often also available in the country travel advisories.
If you or a family member are arrested on drugs charges overseas
If you or a member of you family is arrested on drug charges overseas, you should immediately contact the nearest Australian mission. Consular officers will do what they can to assist Australians arrested overseas within the legal and administrative procedures that apply in that country.
Consular officials can:
- visit the detainee as soon as permission is granted by the local authorities
- provide general information about the local legal system and a list of English-speaking lawyers
- notify family and friends of the detainees situation (subject to the detainees consent)
- assist the detainee to maintain contact with their family and, if requested, help them receive funds from their family and friends
- object to authorities if the detainee is treated less favourably than local citizens arrested for similar offences
- raise any medical or dental problems to the attention of the prison doctor/dentist
- attend the detainee's trial in court as an observer with the approval of the local authorities.
Australian consular officers do not:
- provide legal advice
- organise an Australian's release from jail, arrange bail, pay fines, conduct investigations related to an offence
- obtain better treatment than that provided to the country's own citizens or to other nationals.
For more information on the assistance that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can provide to Australian travellers arrested or jailed overseas see Arrested or jailed overseas and the Consular services charter.