Picture this… You’re on a four-hour flight to Tokyo, with a congested, sniffly nose. Having spent the entire time trying desperately to avoid dripping mucus on the person next to you, you breathe a sigh of relief as the plane comes into land, and drag your carry-on off the plane towards your final hurdle: border control. Standing at the gate, you dig your Sudafed decongestant inhaler out of your pockets to take one last, massive sniff – only to find the border guard you’re trying to avoid rasping all over staring at you, wide-eyed. She whispers into her walkie-talkie, and two stern-looking men approach with tasers, shouting at you to drop the drugs and get down on your knees.
The stuff of speculative fiction? No. You’ve fallen foul of Japan’s extraordinarily strict drug laws – in this case a ban on importing a ‘controlled substance’ known as Pseudoephedrine. This mild stimulant is used as the active ingredient in products like Sudafed, Nyquil and Vicks inhalers, and is illegal in Japan. While the reaction at customs is unlikely to be quite so dramatic, many dozens of tourists still have their nasal sprays confiscated at Japanese customs every year.
Japan’s prohibition laws are amongst the toughest in the world. Even its weed laws are stringent; possession of even a single cannabis joint can land a user up to 5 years in jail, and marijuana itself is almost universally frowned upon. First offenders will generally get off with a lighter sentence – say, six months. In a country where weed laws are so harsh, Japan is one of the few countries in the world where the most commonly used recreational drug is not marijuana but amphetamine. (Another reason why even mild amphetamine derivatives are not allowed in at the border.)
Japan, however, stops short of the death penalty for drug offenders. Amongst the countries that don’t are Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Malaysian drug legislation provides for a mandatory death penalty for convicted drug traffickers – and if you are arrested in possession of as little as 15 grams (1/2 ounce) of heroin or 200 grams (seven ounces) of marijuana, you are presumed by law to be trafficking in drugs. Singapore’s drug laws are similarly harsh, imposing a mandatory death penalty for people caught ‘smuggling’ in as little as 15 grams of certain drugs. (Singapore executed 400 people for drugs offenses between 1991 and 2004.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the country has one of the lowest rates of drug abuse in the world.
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Amsterdam. A common misconception is that marijuana is ‘legal’ in the Netherlands. Technically, all drugs (including cannabis!) are still illegal in the country – they are just ‘tolerated’, covered by a patchwork legislation by which the police and courts agree not to prosecute ‘coffee shop’ vendors, or cannabis smokers in possession of small quantities of the drug (under 5oz). There are occasional movements in the Dutch parliament to make weed sales legal only to residents, and scattered attempts to close some coffee shops down. But, again surprisingly, the lifetime marijuana use rates in Amsterdam are significantly lower than in many other countries in the world. Substance abuse rates, too, are down.
Whatever your drug preferences or views on legalization, it’s important to research the local laws before you travel. You can find out what the drug laws are in the country you’re visiting at knowbeforeyougo.gov.uk, and on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice page for that country.