Students warned of drug laws abroad

The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to students about involvement with drugs while overseas.

“Each year, many American students serve time in foreign jails or await trial in detention because they are unaware of the risks of using or possessing drugs while overseas,” said a letter bearing the signature of Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State.

Powell’s letter also stated that many young Americans are arrested in foreign countries because of inappropriate behavior associated with heavy drinking.

Timing of the warning came with the imminent arrival of the traditional university spring break, when many students plan overseas trips.

Dawn White, director of International Education Services at Portland State, emphasized the risks. Her office serves both study abroad programs and provides services to international students and scholars.

“Any time you go to a foreign country, you are subject to their laws,” White said. “Our university and our government can offer no protection. Any student should know that.”

She reiterates the U.S. warning that many countries have very severe laws.

A State Department fact sheet states that each year, more than 2,500 American citizens are arrested abroad. About half of these are on narcotics charges, including possession of very small amounts of illegal substances.

“A drug that may be legal in one country may not be legal in a neighboring nation,” the bulletin warns. When carrying any prescription drug, travelers are advised to also carry a copy of the doctor’s prescription with them.

Another State Department bulletin advises that a number of Americans have been arrested for possessing prescription drugs, particularly tranquilizers and amphetamines, that they bought legally in certain Asian countries and took to some countries in the Middle East where they are illegal.

Other U.S. citizens have been arrested for buying prescription drugs in quantities that local authorities suspected were for commercial use.

The State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs is responsible for the protection and welfare of U.S. citizens overseas.

“Although U.S. consular officers can visit American citizens being held in foreign jails, they cannot get them released,” Powell’s letter states.

Alcohol can also get U.S. citizens in trouble abroad. Students have been arrested for being intoxicated in public areas, for underage drinking and for drunk driving. Many countries will arrest a student for acts that may be legal here in the U.S.

The foreign office of the United Kingdom has issued warnings to British citizens that sentences of 40 to 50 years for drug offences are not uncommon in Southeast Asia.

A list of potential trouble spots names the island of Cyprus as having a zero tolerance policy. Possession can lead to life imprisonment. Spain assesses sentences up to 12 years for carrying drugs. Greece can issue life imprisonment sentences for even small quantities, with harsh prison conditions.

In Turkey, death sentences are possible. Smoking cannabis in India can get 10 years in prison. Japan is noted for its harsh treatment of drug offenders. Suspects have been known to be held without bail and jailed until indictment, which may take several weeks.

Singapore has a mandatory death penalty for some narcotics cases, as do Algeria and Malaysia. China has been known to assess the death penalty. The Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico and the Philippines have laws calling for mandatory jail terms without parole for marijuana and cocaine violations. Thailand has assessed 15-year sentences for possession of ecstasy.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs offers information on safety online at The site includes travel tips for students, special travel tips for women and warnings on drugs abroad.