International travelers beware! Drugs that are legal in some countries can land you in jail in others

Jun 3, 2022

By Kara Godfrey

In February 2020, Tori Ann Lyla Hunter was carrying medicines which, despite being prescribed by her doctor in Australia, were illegal in Indonesia. When they were discovered in her luggage at an Indonesian airport she was taken immediately to jail where she remained for almost a week.

Pain medications and sleeping pills in a travelers luggage can mean jail time in some countries.

Tourists may be under the illusion that if their drugs are accompanied by a doctor’s note, they are allowed into any country. However, even if they are legally prescribed by a professional, this doesn’t mean they are legal abroad.

Countries such as Japan, Greece and Indonesia have strict rules when it comes to what prescription and over-the-counter drugs are allowed in their borders. Other countries such as China and Costa Rica require a doctor’s note and only allow an exact amount of medication to be brought into the country. Still other countries are adding new restrictions that may be unknown to foreign travelers until they arrive at an international airport or cross a border.

We explain the common drugs which, if you take with you, could result in you being jailed when traveling abroad.

A number of countries do not allow Diazepam, which is often used in anti-anxiety medication, as well as for muscle spasms and inflammations .

Greece and Japan do not allow medication with Diazepam as it is seen as “controlled medication” — which are drugs that are controlled by the government to prevent them being misused. It is also banned in the UAE.

It is only allowed in Dubai if it is declared beforehand with an online form introduced last year, or tourists could be prosecuted.

A tourist was jailed in Dubai for five weeks after authorities thought he had taken illegal amounts of his anti-anxiety medication.

Medicines containing Codeine or Tramadol are banned in countries such as the UAE, Japan, Indonesia and Greece and more governments are considering adding restrictions. This is because the prescribed painkiller is seen as a controlled medicine. It is also banned in Egypt if you bring in too much.

Tramadol presents special problem for travelers since it is not only legal in many countries, it is available over the counter in some, including Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. Although it is an opioid, it is considered low-risk in North America and Europe, where it is prescribed mostly for less severe pain and occasionally for depression.

In 2017, British tourist Laura Plummer was jailed for 14 months for carrying 390 Tramadol pills in her suitcase when visiting the country. She was bringing a year’s supply to her husband, who was working in Egypt, and was unaware of the ban.

Pseudoephedrine is used in medication such as Sudafed and Vicks as a decongestant. This is banned in Japan as it is a drug in the amphetamine chemical class.

Also known for its use as ADHD medication, it is banned in Japan as well where it is classed as amphetamines. It is also banned in Indonesia.

Sleeping tablets often contain Temazepan – Indonesia and Dubai do not allow sleeping medication. When it comes to traveling with controlled drugs, other countries are less strict in banning them.

Medication with prescriptions
Turkey, China and Costa Rica allow medications that are seen as controlled drugs as long as they are accompanied by a prescription and are not in large quantities. Qatar, Thailand and the Maldives also have similar laws.

Codeine could soon be banned from being sold over the counter in the UK, after Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested tougher regulations to reduce the number of people hooked on painkillers.

Tramadol is also addictive, with famous celebrities such as Matt Cardle admitting to becoming hooked on it after an injury. However, as long as the correct dose is taken as advised by doctors, both of the drugs are safe to take.


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