When traveling to different countries, it’s important to know certain things about local laws and possible complications. One aspect that’s especially important to you is substance control and illegal drugs. Some of the most frequent international incarceration problems occur as a result of travelers not understanding local drug laws.
In 1971 America’s President Nixon declared a war on drugs. 45 years later, we’re still struggling to bring the problems of illegal cartels, drug-trade related gang violence, and rampant addiction with all of its health and social consequences, under control.
The straight-edge policies regarding drug control in America have long depended on criminalization and zero tolerance. However, since the problem only seems to be getting worse, many people have been calling for reform, a different approach to drug abuse and legislation.
In a battle that’s been raging for 45 years or more, and on a global level, there’s not a chance that I can cover all the nuances of this debate. However, I want to take a moment and highlight the differentiation in drug policy around the world. Through looking at the techniques and results of different countries, we can learn to approach the problem in America with a more open perspective.
Countries with the Harshest Drug Law
Although America has one of the harshest drug policies among Western first-world countries, many other countries around the world make America’s punishment for drug use and trafficking look like a walk in the park.
One region where we see the hardest penalties for drugs is in southeastern Asia, in countries like China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. This hard-hitting legislation has a few causes. First of all, it’s important to note that “The Golden Triangle” is located there, which means that this area has been the hub of drug production (especially opium and its derivatives) for centuries. In fact, with the impact opium has made on the history and culture of the region, it’s easy to understand how virulent citizens and governments are in opposing the drug trade.
Drug penalty enforcement can get especially scary in countries where governments have absolute power. For example, China executes between 2,000 to 15,000 people each year for drug-related offenses, including high-profile international visitors. In Vietnam, drug users–even casual ones–can be sent to mandatory “treatment centers” where they do forced labor for four years at a time and are given no medical or mental treatment whatsoever.
Another region where we see the strictest drug policies are in deeply religious regions like Dubai or Saudi Arabia. Here, even alcohol is outlawed and if you’re accused of selling drugs, you’ll almost always get the death penalty. Even certain prescription drugs that are permissible in other countries are outlawed, which is why travelers need to review the policies and keep their noses clean when entering the country.
Does Decriminalization Work?
In certain European countries, we see the polar opposite when it comes to drug law. Denmark has long been a leader in making just about everything legal, from underage drinking to prostitution. Denmark has been leading the world in enacting “harm-reduction” measures concerning drugs, so that instead of ostracizing drug users, they treat them as patients and try to minimize the damage to health and society that happens as a side effect of drug use. That’s why Denmark is known for policies like needle exchanges, or “fix rooms” where addicts can use in a safe environment and get off the streets. At first this seems astounding to us; do they want to encourage drug usage? But these policies are more about removing stigma and minimizing the damage done by things like overdose and drug-related violence. After all, no one can heal from addiction if they’re dead.
Portugal is another example of the decriminalization of drugs. A couple decades ago, Portugal had one of the biggest problems with hard drug use and addiction in the world. When increasingly harsh drug laws failed to make a dent, Portugal decided to take a revolutionary approach and decriminalize all drug use instead. While initially this led to an increase in drug activity, after a few years, the pattern reversed itself and they’ve seen steadily decreasing numbers of drug use ever since. And perhaps more importantly, they’ve seen less drug-related crime, chronic addiction problems, and related health problems like overdose and HIV infection.
Latin America’s Changing Policy
Another region in the world that has long been a hotbed of drug production and trafficking is Latin America. While historically, Latin America has had some of the most rigid policies about drug use, several countries are starting to take a different approach. A lot of Latin American countries are spearheading a movement to decriminalize drug use so that they can focus on the underlying problems – breaking the power of cartels and preventing violence and murder focused around the drug trade. The drug trade inflames tensions between countries, like the standoff we’re seeing right now between relatively-stable Columbia, and Venezuela, whose economy is plummeting and whose president is trying to direct the citizens’ frustrations at Columbia for continuing to fuel the drug cartels in both countries.
Columbia decriminalized cocaine and marijuana for personal use a few years ago, knowing that while the drug itself can be harmful, the biggest danger to a society is in the way that the black market trade perpetuates violence (a subject you can learn more about here).
The long-term effects of this adjustment in policy overall has yet to be seen, but it’s been positive enough so far that many Latin American officials are calling for the U.S. to follow suit to help break the supply chain that fuels instability in Latin American countries. In recent years, we’ve seen a few states one by one decriminalizing marijuana, but a Portugal-style decriminalization policy is a long ways away.