Several Australians have been arrested overseas in the last couple of months for allegedly attempting to traffic drugs to or from Australia.
On 8th November 2014, 22-year-old Sydney woman Kalynda Davis was stopped at Guangzhou International Airport in China allegedly carrying 75kg of methamphetamine in luggage.
She denied having any knowledge of the drugs or how they got there.
Ms Davis had made the trip to China with her boyfriend, Peter Gardner, whom she had met on Tinder just two weeks prior.
She was detained in China for several weeks before finally being released and brought home to Australia last week following negotiations between Chinese officials and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
There are concerns that Ms Davis was recruited by organised crime gangs based in Sydney.
Whilst Ms Davis had a lucky escape, her partner remains in custody at a detention centre in China. If convicted, he could face death by firing squad.
The young couple are not the only ones to have faced drug trafficking charges of late.
On the 7th of December 2014, 51 year-old Sydney woman Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto was stopped at Kuala Lumpur airport after 1.5 kilograms of methamphetamine was found in her luggage.
Ms Pinto Exposto also contends that she was unaware of the presence of the drugs and claims to have been the victim of a drug mule scheme.
Malaysia has harsh penalties for drug trafficking, and if found guilty, Ms Exposto faces death by hanging.
Different cultures, different laws
These are not the only examples of Australians being accused overseas of exporting or importing drugs.
In fact, one-third of all Australians held in overseas prisons last year were there for drug-related offences.
While Australia has relatively moderate penalties for minor drug offences, other countries may have much stricter laws, even for minor possession of drugs like cannabis.
In the United Arab Emirates, you may be charged with drug possession even where illegal drugs are detected in your blood or urine, or where trace amounts are found on your luggage or clothing.
Substances like marijuana can be detected in blood and urine tests for days or even weeks after consumption, so it’s important to be particularly wary when travelling.
In Saudi Arabia, the laws are stricter still – and even extend to alcohol. As a strict Muslim country, the consumption and possession of alcohol is illegal and may attract heavy penalties such as imprisonment or even public floggings.
In some Asian countries such as China, Thailand and Malaysia, being caught with small amounts of drugs can result in lengthy prison sentences without the option of parole – or even the death penalty if you’re particularly unlucky.
It’s estimated that between 2,000 and 15,000 people are executed each year for drug offence in China alone, and tourists are no exception.
In 2009, British national Akmal Shaikh was sentenced to death by lethal injection in China after he was convicted of trafficking four kilograms of heroin.
This was despite pleas of clemency by his family, international humanitarian organisations and British officials, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
In 2012, even the Netherlands introduced a policy to prohibit non-residents from purchasing and consuming cannabis; despite the country’s otherwise liberal approach to recreational drug use.
It’s always best to stay on the safe side, and not buy or consume drugs whilst overseas.
The rise of drug mule scams
We recently published a blog about the increase in drug mule scams of late.
If Kalynda Davis and Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto are being truthful, they may be the latest victims of these scams.
Drug mule scams are often elaborate and target vulnerable individuals through dating sites such as Tinder, or even online competitions.
Scammers will go to considerable lengths to gain the trust of their victims before giving them ‘free luggage’ lined with drugs or otherwise planting drugs on them.
If you are travelling overseas, there are precautions you can take to maximise your chances of avoiding trouble.
Never accept luggage, clothing or other items from anyone else – you never know what’s secretly been secreted into it.
And make sure to always keep an eye on your own luggage – don’t leave it unattended or with other people.
It’s a good idea to put a padlock on your suitcase if you’re checking it in, or to have the luggage wrapped at the airport, and thoroughly check to see whether it has been tampered with when collecting it at the other end.
It’s also important to research the drug laws of any countries that you are travelling to, so that you are aware of the possible consequences of being caught with drugs in your system.
If you or a loved-one ends up in trouble with the law, contact the nearest Australian embassy as soon as possible.
Though consular officials cannot provide legal advice, they can visit detained persons, provide information about the country’s legal systems, refer them to lawyers and notify family and friends.