Using illegal drugs is clearly not smart. Yet some Americans compound that stupidity by taking controlled substances on foreign vacations or buying them in another country. The results can be tragic.
The number of Americans arrested on drug charges in foreign countries jumped more than 20 percent last year. Police seized 1,242 U.S. travelers, compared to 1,013 in 1986. Many assumed, naively and wrongly, that as American citizens they were immune for prosecution under foreign laws.Getting arrested in a foreign nation is no picnic. Some of those countries have draconian drug laws, judicial systems that can be very one-sided, no particular rights for prisoners, long jail terms, and prisons that can range from filthy to downright abusive and dangerous.
When an American is arrested on a drug charge, there is often little that U.S. authorities can do in his or her behalf, even when there is evidence of mistreatment of prisoners.
What might be ignored by U.S. police can get a person a jail term in some other countries. Some Americans have been taken into custody for having as little as a third of an ounce of marijuana.
At the end of last year, 596 Americans were in foreign jails. The U.S. has inmate transfer treaties with Mexico, Britain, Canada, and Spain that allow offenders to serve their sentences in jails in their homelands. But that is no guarantee. Many Americans still languish in foreign jails because the U.S. penal system is overcrowded.
The wisest thing for Americans going abroad is to avoid any contact of any kind with drugs, even though they may be openly sold on the street in some countries. And it makes equally good sense to continue that behavior even when the traveler is safely back home again.