Trouble in paradise: Falling foul of Southeast Asia’s tough drug laws

TALK about your Bali vacation gone all to hell. Kerobokan Prison was likely the last thing on the anonymous Australian teenager’s mind when he paid a Kuta dealer about $25 for a baggie of marijuana. But drugs in Southeast Asia have a way of screwing up your travel plans.

Marijuana leaves, drug laws in southeast asia

Image © Mateusz Atroszko.

As the Aussie teen found out the hard way, countries in Southeast Asia are famously strict about drugs. In Singapore, you can be arrested on arrival if you test positive for drugs consumed while abroad. In Thailand, over 2,000 alleged drug pushers were killed within a three-month war on drugs between February and April 2003.

So the kid actually got lucky – getting arrested in a buy-bust operation and getting away with two months’ jail time in Bali? Considering the worst possible scenario, the anonymous Aussie teen caught a break.

If you get arrested on drug charges in Southeast Asia, though, you can’t expect to get off as lightly as the Aussie kid. It all depends on where you’re caught, and how much you’re carrying at the time of arrest.

police in bali, drug laws in southeast asia

Image © Colby Otero / Creative Commons.

On the lax end is Cambodia. Despite being hard on drugs in theory, the authorities mostly ignore drug users who don’t call too much attention to themselves. The risk of arrest for marijuana use is “practically zero if you’re not particularly socially inept and/or unlucky,” explains an expat in Cambodia who goes by the name of Halvor. “Almost all the locals and frequent visitors I know here consider smoking pot openly at bars… nothing to worry about.”

Contrast this with Singapore, which has some of the toughest drug laws on the books and does not hold back when it comes to enforcing them. Singapore’s draconian Misuse of Drugs Act prescribes a mandatory death sentence if you’re found guilty of possessing at least half a kilo of marijuana or 30 grams of cocaine.

Why are local laws so harsh on drugs? The answer is one part cultural and another part geopolitical.

First, the ancient Chinese philosophy of legalism exerts a subtle influence on modern law in the region: the philosophy mandates strict laws and harsh punishments for violators. Modern-day Singapore bureaucrats claim that the results justify such archaic harshness:  “Over two decades, the number of drug abusers arrested each year has declined by two-thirds, from over 6,000 in the early 1990s to about 2,000 last year,” wrote Singaporean diplomat Michael Teo in 2010. “We do not have traffickers pushing drugs openly in the streets, nor do we need to run needle exchange centres.”

Second, the proximity of the heroin-producing Golden Triangle (a patch of mountainous real estate shared by Thailand, Laos and Burma) puts pressure on countries in the region, forcing lawmakers to crack down hard on drugs in the hopes of damming a potential flood of cheap heroin. They have every right to be nervous: Burma alone produced 580 metric tons of opium in 2010, and the numbers are only climbing.

In the following weeks, we’ll look at the specific laws and penalties in certain Southeast Asian countries, and what you should do if you’re ever unlucky enough to be caught. In the meantime, may your luck never run out in mid-toke.