Criminal Law Newsletter

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Understanding Foreign Drug Laws

United States citizens frequently believe they will not be subject to foreign laws for crimes committed abroad since they are U.S. citizens. This is not the case. In fact, the consequences for crimes committed abroad, especially drug possession, can be more severe. The U.S. is one of few countries that believe in “innocence until proven guilty.” Furthermore, the burden of proof in many countries rests with the accused to prove innocence.

U.S. citizens are held responsible for knowing the drug laws of foreign countries they visit. Common defenses to drug possession useful in the U.S. may have little effect abroad. U.S. citizens will likely be punished as if they intentionally violated the law regarding drug possession.

The Drugs and the Amount

Although U.S. law enforcement and courts generally define illegal drugs as cocaine, heroin, hashish, mescaline, Quaaludes and marijuana, other countries may have their own interpretations and additions to the list. Drug charges can include buying, selling, possessing, using or transporting drugs.

Some U.S. citizens may incorrectly believe that if they are only carrying a small amount of drugs the punishment will be less strict. However, U.S. citizens have been arrested abroad for possessing as little as one-third of an ounce of marijuana.

Tough Consequences

In some countries, posting bail is not an option for an alleged drug possession. Some countries even allow illegally obtained evidence in court, and have mandatory prison sentences for a minimum of seven years, without parole.

In Singapore, if convicted of certain drug charges, the punishment can be caning (a physical beating) with a rattan stick wielded by a martial arts expert, resulting in gaping wounds that may take months to heal. Additionally, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Thailand all permit the death penalty for drug convictions.

In 2005, Singapore hanged a 25 year-old Australian convicted of smuggling 400 grams of heroin into the country, despite attempts by Austrialian officials to intervene. According to a 2004 Amnesty International report, 420 people have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking.

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