The World's Scariest Places to be Busted For Drugs

By Joe Donatelli 04/11/11

Think the drug laws are harsh at home? Think again.

Accused 31-year-old delaer Shivaun Orton, faces execution in Malaysia.

Last December, an American Lieutenant Navy Commander named Scintar Buenviaje Mejia was passing through security in the Manila airport on his way back to Los Angeles when police apprehended him with a plastic packet of white powder. Even though he insisted he was set up, the decorated naval officer panicked during his 24-hour interrogation and ended up jumping to his death from a second-floor staircase while he was accompanied during a bathroom break. As it turned out, the powder wasn’t even drugs. Still, in the Philippines—and in countries around the world—getting caught with drugs can lead to horrifically long jail sentences and execution.

Of course, drug laws vary widely from country to country, ranging from the Netherlands, where hash is freely sold in coffee shops, to states like Singapore, where possession of a single joint can lead to a lifetime in the... joint. But what are the dangers of being caught with, say, a vial of coke in Cairo? The State Department offers this handy guide, addressed in more detail later. Still, here’s a general rule: if you walk out of a country’s lone shoe store and run into a mural of the country’s Supreme Leader, it’s probably not a place you want to get caught with a doobie.

The Human Rights Program of the International Harm Reduction Association, a non-governmental organization, published a report in 2010 that focused particular attention on the 32 nations that punish drug offenses with death.

Yet just because a country does not have a drug-related death penalty on the books doesn’t mean its legal system is fair. Stories of foreigners arrested for drug possession or trafficking are common, as any regular viewer of Locked Up: Abroad can attest. Just consider the case of 24-year-old Thai dancer Sophawat Ueamduean, who was arrested last December after she smuggled ecstasy into Bali by swallowing more than 1,280 plastic-wrapped pills. She was apprehended at Ngurah Rai International Airport near Denpasar. Ueamduean reportedly appeared nervous, according to customs officials, and a pat down and body search revealed she had an improbably hard stomach. She was arrested and transported to a hospital where doctors found 90 bags of pills in her stomach. The pills weighed one pound and had a street value of $50,000. She is currently on trial in Denpasar District Court, where she faces life imprisonment or death.

“While a lucky few defendants may be bailed out by influential friends or embassies, in many countries foreigners are subject to the same overly punishing, disproportionate penalties as the local populace,” said Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program at the Open Society Foundations.

In Malaysia, a British woman named Shivaun Orton and her Malaysian husband, Abdul Harris Fadil, were arrested in December after a police raid on their hostel uncovered “bundles of cash” and a reported $31,000 worth of cannabis, crystal methamphetamine, ecstasy and heroin. She pled not guilty to drug possession and trafficking charges on January 26 and will return to court on March 31. The couple was denied bail. Her family alleges she was a virtual prisoner to her guilty husband, but despite her appeals, Orton could well become the first British woman to be hanged in any country since 1955.

“Generally speaking, Muslim countries and secular authoritarian regimes, especially in Asia, have the heaviest penalties for drug offenses, including long prison sentences for possession and execution for trafficking,” said Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason who writes frequently about drug policy abuses. “But don’t lose sight of the fact that the United States stands out among liberal democracies for the harshness of its drug policies, which include routine arrests of drug users and rigid, Draconian sentences based on drug weight.”

Where American laws can be unjust, many foreign laws are simply tragic. Below are six countries that execute drug crime offenders with gusto.


According to the Drug Policy Alliance, China adheres strictly to its zero tolerance stance on drug use. By some conservative estimates, China executes between 2,000 and 15,000 people a year for assorted drug offenses. In 2009, for example, British national Akmal Shaikh was put to death for smuggling heroin, despite the strong objections of Britain’s then-prime minister, Gordon Brown.


Malaysian laws also mandate the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers. Unfortunately it does not take much to be branded a drug trafficker here. Whether you are caught with a half-ounce of heroin or seven ounces of marijuana, authorities can arrest you for trafficking drugs. Anyone can be stopped and detained by police for up to two weeks on suspicion of drug use and forcibly tested for any traces of drugs in their system. People who test positive are automatically sentenced to a year of compulsory treatment, even if they’re not caught with any drugs at the time.


Words you never want to hear in Singapore: Misuse of Drugs Act. According to Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau, the Misuse of Drugs Act empowers the police to force suspected drug abusers into drug rehab for between six and 36 months. The law also mandates lengthy prison terms for abusers of specific drugs, including meth, cocaine and ecstasy.


Daniel Wolfe of the International Harm Reduction Development Program at the Open Society Foundations said that in Vietnam, drug users, including foreigners, could be forcibly sent to “rehabilitation,” which includes near starvation and back-breaking labor. He added, “Even casual drug users are sent for four years to these special 'treatment centers' run by the Department of Social Evils, where they are offered no treatment except forced labor, harsh discipline and torture. And this is in a country that made headlines by ‘decriminalizing’ drug use a few years ago.”

Saudi Arabia

Stuck for a few days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, even the most ardent A.A. old-timer would probably find himself craving a stiff drink. In fact, for people trying to dry out, Saudi Arabia might seem like a virtual paradise. In strict accordance with Saudi law, visitors to the devout Muslim country are strictly prevented from bringing in any narcotics, pills or alcohol. There are no bars or liquor stores in the entire country, which means everything from Ativan to Absolut is strictly forbidden. According to the State Department, penalties for the import, manufacture, possession, and consumption of both alcohol and illegal drugs are extremely severe. Convicted drug users are subjected to lengthy jail sentences, heavy fines, public floggings and/or deportation. The only punishment for drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia is death by hanging. The State Department adds, “Saudi officials make no exceptions,” though anyone who has partied with a Saudi prince is bound to disagree.

Worth noting: Most of these statistics are estimates from human rights groups. Authoritarian governments prefer to keep this kind of thing quiet, as it tends to put a damper on tourism.

To find out more about international drug laws, go to this State Department link, click the letter of the country, select the country, click on Criminal Penalties and scroll until you find the pertinent info. While you will not find each country’s entire penal code, the State Department will—usually—mention whether or not the country has harsh drug laws. The Drug Policy Alliance also offers this link to Drug Policy by Region. But none of you need to worry about that anyway. 

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Joe Donatelli is a journalist who was born and raised in Cleveland, is a graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, and is the author of “The Marching Band Refused to Yield” and “Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy.” Donatelli has written articles for the Los Angeles TimesReasonSlateCracked and has been a writer and editor at Scripps-Howard News ServicePlayboy and Los Angeles magazine. He is currently the digital director at News 5, the local ABC station in Cleveland.In his spare time he sets his mouth on fire with hot sauce. Follow Joe on Twitter.