Travel has long been a way to broaden the mind and experience the world, but there is a darker side to the pastime. In the same way that people board flights and cross borders for purposes of human or sexual trafficking, others go to different countries to buy and take drugs that their home nations have outlawed. But this goes far beyond a mere recreational indulgence; traveling for drug use has serious consequences that are not just limited to legal or medical repercussions.
Business, Pleasure, and Drugs
Why would people travel to take drugs? There are a number of reasons why people would choose to spend money and time to travel hundreds, or even thousands, of miles obtain drugs. In some cases, the drugs are only available in the destination country; either because they are grown there and can be found with a greater degree of ease than in the traveler’s home country; or because the destination country has relatively easier laws on the purchase and/or consumption of drugs than the traveler’s home country.
In some cases, the drugs are purely incidental. The travel is undertaken for primarily touristic purposes (as opposed to making the journey exclusively to obtain drugs), but trying various chemicals and substances is seen as part of the experience of being in an exotic culture.
A smaller group of people are driven to travel for drugs because they have medical conditions that require medications that are prohibitively expensive in their home countries, but sold for mere dollars on the street corners of developing countries. However, such products are not just knockoffs; they are counterfeits that are often so poorly made, they can be downright poisonous.
Consequences of Traveling for Drug Use
Regardless of the nature of the trip, traveling for drug use bears an enormous amount of risk, even for people who may be well versed in the dangers of what they have in mind. For example:
- Travelers may be arrested or detained in a foreign country that does not have the same concept of due process as the United States, where even the suspicion of possession of drugs may warrant a jail sentence.
- Tourists may be ignorant of local language or customs, especially with regards to the legal and penal system of the destination country. Even the most innocuous of drug uses could be a serious offense.
- Law enforcement in developing countries may be corrupt and unreliable.
- Getting medical attention in the event of an overdose or unexpected reaction to a drug may not be possible in remote areas. Language can also be a barrier in describing symptoms or medical history, and developing countries may not have the necessary facilities to treat overdoses.
- The drug trade in destination countries is often controlled by organized crime syndicates, who are (by nature) not trustworthy about their business dealings.
- Drug trade is usually tied to social issues of poverty, human trafficking, and local corruption.1 Financing the drug industry by drug tourism may be making life harder and more dangerous for locals.
- People who visit other countries to buy drugs are usually targeted by dealers and sellers to unwittingly transport drugs across borders.
- Travelers who take drugs in remote and unfamiliar places expose themselves to other health issues, such as contracting HIV and other blood-borne conditions.2
In South America, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia each briefly assumed the mantle of being the top cocaine producer and exporter in the world. As recently as November 2015, however, Colombia has reclaimed the title, as the cocaine that comes out of Colombia is greater than the amount produced by Bolivia and Peru combined. The Washington Post reports that in 2014, Colombians planed 44 percent more coca crop than they did in 2013. Drug agents in the United States estimate that 2015 has seen even more coca.3
That makes Colombia a hot destination for people who want to make use of the drug’s presence there. An Australian woman describes the status of cocaine in her native country: a “rich man’s drug” that can cost $300 a gram, or $5 in Colombia, where people “give it away because it is so accessible.”4
Even though Colombia is home to beautiful natural vistas and a UNESCO World Heritage site, The Guardian writes that cocaine is a tourist attraction in its own right. Tourists line up to visit cocaine factories, where they can watch how coca leaves are processed and turned into cocaine (even participating in the process), and then sample the product. Travelers are drawn to Colombia as much for the cocaine as they are for the thrill of backpacking through a country where the government, organized crime syndicates, and guerilla groups have been locked in a stalemate since 1964. The conflict, borne from both the Cold War and the War on Drugs, has alternated between restrained periods of simmering animosity and outright violence. More than 200,000 people have been killed, with tens of thousands “disappeared,” and more than 5 million civilians displaced by the fighting.5
A Global Grocery
Even as the Colombian government worked to fight back against the cartels and guerrilla groups, torching 144 tons of cocaine, 350,000 gallons of chemicals used in the production of cocaine, and 25 percent of the land where the coca leaf was cultivated in 2008, Colombia’s financial inequality and corruption remain among the worst in the world. The country’s rise to the top of the cocaine-producing pyramid demonstrates that the continued presence and market for cocaine will undo any hard work done by the authorities to cast off the moniker of Colombia being “the world’s supermarket for illegal drugs.”6, 7
Such is the overwhelming power of cocaine that it was officially decriminalized by the Colombian government in 1994, as a way of shifting the battlefield of drug abuse away from law enforcement and more towards educational initiatives. By law, cocaine cannot be sold or transported, but possession of less than a single gram of cocaine for personal use is legally acceptable. However, the former judge who penned the 1994 decision laments to CBS News that Colombian governments never invested the time or money to fight a better fight.
From 1994 to 2004, drug use in Colombia increased by 40 percent, creating not just a haven for cartels and guerrilla organizations who use cocaine as a weapon in their war, but also a reputation that draws curious and thrill-seeking visitors.8 Vice magazine writes that for those who want to find cocaine in Colombia, it is neither difficult nor expensive. Even as the police search tourists who look suspicious, the supply of cocaine has not been affected.9
Mules and Airport Security
Despite the apparent novelty of cocaine in Colombia, the drug cartels that keep a finger on the pulse and flow of their product have no qualms about making targets out of the tourists who come sniffing on their turf. Travelers who are identified as “mules” by criminal gangs are often the unwitting victims of drug smuggling, having drugs planted in their airport baggage with the intention of transporting the drugs back to their countries of origin. Even if airport customs apprehend these “mules” and confiscate the contraband, it is of no significant loss to the gangs, as they either have plenty more cocaine to plant on the next unsuspecting traveler, or simply bribe the authorities to get their product back.10
The risk of being made a mule does not always come from drug gangs. The former head of operations for the Australian Federal Police’s investigations unit claimed that state and federal police often worked with smugglers to target travelers, allowing smugglers access to passengers’ baggage. The comments were made against the backdrop of the case of an Australian woman who was imprisoned for nine years on a charge of transporting marijuana into Indonesia. Protesting her innocence, the woman’s defense team claimed that the drugs were planted in her baggage without her knowledge.11
Rat Poison, Brick Dust, and Floor Polish
Eve Turow, writing in The Atlantic, compared the drug scenes in South America and Southeast Asia and was surprised at the ubiquitous nature of the drug culture she found in the “Golden Triangle,” a region of 367,000 square miles where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet.12
In Thailand, the poison is fake prescription drugs sold under brand names that have become household names: Valium, Viagra, Cialis, Xanax (which is sold like Tic-Tacs, according to Turow’s Atlantic article), but bearing little to no resemblance to the medications found in a pharmacy. An investigator of Pfizer, the largest drug company in the world, states the pills sold on the streets of Thailand may have the same pharmaceutical ingredients as the actual drugs, but those ingredients could be in wildly unsafe proportions – either too much or too little. Worse, the pills could contain any number of contaminants that are incredibly toxic to humans. Pills have been known to contain rat poison, brick dust, and floor polish – anything that manufacturers and smugglers can do to cut corners and con gullible travelers into thinking that they’re getting a great deal on drugs that cost a lot of money back home. But the temptation of scoring what appears to be brand name pharmaceuticals is so great among tourists to Thailand, that the dealers find it a more profitable venture than selling heroin.13
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Viagra is among the most popular of the counterfeited medicines sold on the streets of Thailand. They look the same – diamond-shaped and infamously blue – and hopeful tourists are told that, at $6 per tablet (compared to $10 per tablet in the United States), “it’s a good price.” The truth, obviously, could not be more different. The drugs can contain too much or too little of the correct active ingredient, if they contain the correct active ingredient at all, and almost certainly come cut with other products that can cause sickness, viruses, and even death.
The knockoffs look “astonishingly real,” with the manufacturers of the fake Viagra going so far as to duplicate the hologram on the packet. All this poses an added layer of danger to an eager tourist who is looking to score some meds on the cheap.
The World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of the pharmaceuticals sold in the parts of Southeast Asia that have the biggest problem with counterfeit drugs do not have the stated active ingredient. This does not just cover fake drugs sold by criminal dealers, but even medications sold by legitimate companies, that have little to no quality control or regulation over their manufacturing processes.
A Southeast Asia project coordinator for U.S. Pharmacopeia (a nonprofit organization that monitors drug quality) tells the Global Post that fake pharmaceuticals can be created “in an apartment, easily.”14
The Worst Party in Asia
A lot of people looking to make the journey to find exotic drugs don’t go to Thailand for the fake prescription drugs. Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, offers the notorious “full moon parties” of all-night beach gatherings that are held before or after every full moon. Attended more by tourists than locals, full moon parties are “debauched, depraved and increasingly deadly,” according to Slate magazine, even as visitors are warned that marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms are illegal in Thailand.15
Full moon parties are known by reputation (Slate calls it “The Worst Party in Asia”), where tourists come to “get very drunk,” right next to undercover police officers making arrests for selling MDMA to college students barely 18 years of age.16
The Thai government cracked down on the number of full moon parties in 2015, citing reasons of wild substance abuse. The police chief of the Ko Pha Ngan district said that his country will not host drug tourists who visit Thailand for no other reason than to get high. However, it is likely that intrepid travelers will most probably catch flights or backpack to Cambodia or Myanmar, one of the other countries in the Golden Triangle.17
It should be noticed that visitors who fall afoul of Thailand’s “downright medieval” drug policies are subject to even further hardship.18 Human Rights Watch explains that drug addicts and people arrested for the possession of drugs are registered and placed under police surveillance. People within such programs have no expectation of medical privacy, and the fear of being monitored by the authorities turns people off accessing rehabilitation services, even though they are provided freely.19 The United Nations has urged the Thai government to discontinue its “counterproductive” program of forcing addicts and arrestees into rehab.
The Wrong Type of Tourists
One of the most popular destinations for drug travel isn’t in a developing country. In fact, Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands, is one of the top financial and cultural centers of Europe. Millions of tourists visit every year to see the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum, but also to sample the legal and regulated prostitution and the cannabis.
In “The World’s Best Drug Laws,” The Fix writes that longstanding laws against the purchase and consumption of marijuana in many countries has led to a fascination with Amsterdam selling cannabis and related products in coffee shops.
Despite the government of the Netherlands priding itself on its unabashedly liberal drug policies, complaints about drug tourists causing disruptions to local cannabis shops (everything from traffic jams, to urinating and vomiting in public, to fueling the trade of illegal drugs) led to some cannabis cafes only serving licensed members who have to show proof of residence before being served. The process effectively banned tourists from patronizing cannabis coffee shops.
Despite criticism of the plan, the Dutch health and justice ministries pointed out that the relatively lax laws on the possession and consumption of soft drugs in the Netherlands “[attracts] other types of tourists,” and specifically mentioned the “criminality associated with […] drug trafficking.”20
However, the city of Amsterdam refused to comply with the plan, citing the economic incentives provided by millions of tourists who came to sample the local cannabis (and related culture) offered by the 220 coffee shops licensed to sell marijuana-based consumables. Described as a “rebellion” by The Telegraph, the opposition from the capital city was enough for the government of the Netherlands to scale back the ban, allowing local authorities to decide whether or not to serve cannabis products to tourists.
Tourists vs. Coffee Shops vs. the Government
To that effect, the question of whether a tourist can walk into Amsterdam and buy a cannabis product is complicated. Even though the “no tourists” policy does not apply to Amsterdam, individual establishments have been allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to serve tourists. Notwithstanding the unpopularity of the government ban, coffee shops in Amsterdam are still on board with the idea of decreasing the criminality that arises from foreigners looking to avail themselves of Dutch cannabis.21
As a result of that, marijuana products that contain more than 15 percent THC, the primary chemical compound that causes the natural highs of marijuana, are illegal. Furthermore, tourists looking to enjoy both the cannabis and the Amsterdam sex scene will have to change their plans, as 26 cafes near the city’s renowned red light district will close, as part of a measure to curb “antisocial behavior.”22 The government further bans the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages at venues that sell cannabis. People under the age of 18 cannot purchase cannabis products, and establishments are not allowed to advertise the drugs they sell.
Despite Amsterdam fighting to retain its status as a pot-friendly city (and, to a degree, winning that fight), police keep a close eye on what CNN calls “aimless meandering” of pot smokers.23
The Beaches of Tijuana
It seems strange to think of the annual spring break tradition as an example of drug tourism, but that is effectively what it is: traveling to another country to consume chemical substances. In this case, spring break is largely seen as a rite of passage, to enjoy being away from the supervision of parents and college authority figures.24 For tens of thousands of college students every year (35,000 in 2012), the beaches and sunshine of Tijuana, Mexico, is the place to be to celebrate the end of winter.25 But the risks here are multiple; in 2011, 120 Americans were killed as a result of Mexico’s ongoing battle with drug cartels, and many visitors to the country are unaware that Mexico’s law enforcement is so corrupt that the army has taken over policing duties.26, 27
For college kids, however, the threat of danger from a drug war seems remote. The bigger problem is with the celebrations themselves: The American College of Health reports that male participants in spring break revelry drink upwards of 18 alcoholic beverages a day. The National Institute on Drug Abuse writes that a quarter of the 18-20 year olds who make the journey don’t simply drink, but also take marijuana and MDMA (also known as Molly).28 Female students are at further risk for being slipped date rape drugs (such as GHB or Rohypnol) in their drinks. An article in the journal of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors reported on the results of a study that found that drinking on spring break was “positively associated with alcohol-related consequences,” such as:
- Experiencing a hangover
- Losing consciousness
- Fighting or arguing with friends
- Sustaining an injury as the result of drinking
- Acting in an unfriendly or antisocial way
- Engaging in sexual situations that were later regretted
- Fighting or arguing with a family member29, 30
It’s not just Tijuana; Panama City, Florida, is the “spring break capital of the world,” according to The Atlantic, where 500,000 college students every year purchase cheap alcohol in bulk and spend $170 million in six weeks of partying and fun. Surprising to no one, Panama City experiences a spike in crime every time spring break rolls around.31 In 2015, seven people were shot at a spring break house party, and police arrested 143 people on drug-related charges. More than 2,500 people were booked into the Bay County jail, even as the sheriff’s office admitted that it was impossible to arrest everyone who was breaking the law.32
The beaches of Panama City, the streets of Thailand, and the jungles of Colombia don’t have much in common, except for this: Policing drug tourists becomes more and more difficult, a tug-of-war between local authorities who want to clean up what can be a rampant and deadly drug problem, and the businesses – either legitimate or otherwise – that see a profit to be made off thrill-seeking, gullible, or curious visitors.
- Poverty, Corruption Promote Drug Trafficking.” (October 2015). The Herald. Accessed December 8, 2015.
- Substance Abuse/Use.” (January 2014). AIDS.gov. Accessed December 8, 2015.
- “Colombia Again is the World’s Top Coca Producer. Here’s Why That’s a Blow to the United States.” (November 2015). Washington Post. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “Australians Head to Colombian Village for Cocaine “Special Tour”.” (December 2015). ABC. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “Report Says 220,000 Died in Colombia Conflict.” (July 2013). Al-Jazeera. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “A Look at Major Drug-Producing Countries.” (February 2008). USA Today. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “Colombia Grows Quarter Less Coca Crop, According to UNODC 2012 Survey.” (n.d.) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “Colombia Rethinks Legalized Drugs.” (April 2004). CBS News. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “I Went on a “Make Your Own Cocaine Tour” in Colombia.” (August 2013). Vice. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “Dangers of Planted Drugs Stalks Travelers to South America.” (August 2015). The Guadalajara Reporter. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “AFP Involved in Drug Smuggling: Ex-Detective.” (May 2005). Sydney Morning Herald. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “The High Lands: Exploring Drug Tourism Across Southeast Asia.” (March 2012). The Atlantic. Accessed December 10, 2015.
- “Trade in Harmful Counterfeit Pills Going Global.” (April 2015). Al-Jazeera. Accessed December 10, 2015.
- “Fake Viagra, and More, in Bangkok.” (May 2010). Global Post. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “The Worst Party in Asia.” (n.d.) Slate. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Thailand’s Full Moon Parties Have Been Taken Over By YOLO Idiots” (August 2013). Vice. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Thailand’s Famous Moon Parties Banned in Drug and Alcohol Crackdown.” (November 2014). News.com.au. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Thai Government in Massive Campaign to Round Up Drug Users.” (February 2011). Stopthedrugwar.org. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Drugs, Punitive Laws, Policies, and Policing Practices, and HIV/AIDS.” (November 2009). Human Rights Watch. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- ”Tourism Suicide: Dutch to Ban Foreigners From Cannabis Coffee Shops.” (May 2011). Daily Mail. Accessed December 9, 2015.
- “Can Tourists Still Smoke Weed In Amsterdam?” (n.d.) Joe.ie. Accessed December 10, 2015.
- “Tourists Exempted From Ban on Smoking Cannabis in Amsterdam.” (December 2012). The Telegraph. Accessed December 10, 2015.
- “Amsterdam for Tourists: What’s Legal?” (July 2013). CNN. Accessed December 10, 2015.
- “Spring Break’s Greatest Danger.” (March 2014). Forbes. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Tijuana Gears for More than 35,000 Visitors for Spring Break.” (March 2012). San Diego Red. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Students Continue Travel to Tijuana.” (February 2012). USA Today. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Spring Break in Mexico 2013: Security Risks and Travel Tips.” (March 2013). Stratfor Global Intelligence. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “DrugFacts: Nationwide Trends.” (January 2014). National Institute of Drug Abuse. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “College Students Partying This Spring Break? Watch Out for These Risks.” (March 2015). Your Health, Your Choice. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Preliminary Examination of Spring Break Alcohol Use and Related Consequences.” (December 2009). Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “2,000 Years of Partying: The Brief History and Economics of Spring Break.” (March 2013). The Atlantic. Accessed December 11, 2015.
- “Spring Break Arrests in Panama City Beach Up This Year, As Are Drug Charges, Guns Taken.” (April 2015). AL.com. Accessed December 11, 2015.