10 Countries With The Most Strict Drug Laws In The World

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Between last year’s nationwide legalization in Canada, and record numbers of state legalization efforts in the US, it’s safe to say that, after DECADES of prohibition, things are finally starting to look up for cannabis users – at least, if you’re in North America.

But the reality is that, while the trend in our little corner of the world is undoubtably positive, there are still plenty of countries where cannabis is not only illegal, but with drug policies so bizarre and draconian that it almost beggars belief.

So, whether you’re planning on traveling, living abroad, or you’re just morbidly curious, we’ve got you covered.  Here are (in no particular order) 10 countries with the most insane drug laws in the world. 

Consider yourselves warned.

#1 – Malaysia

Southeast Asia is a part of the world known for extreme measures when it comes to the war on drugs, and Malaysia is no exception.  The conservative, predominantly Islamic nation has the distinction of being one of the countries on our list where possession with the intent to traffic can get you the death penalty.

As for “personal use”?  Not much better. Possession of under 50 grams is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Notable Stories And Examples

In 2018, a 29-year old Malaysian man by the name of Muhammed Lukman was convicted and sentenced to death for drug trafficking.  His crime – selling CBD oil online to patients suffering from illness and chronic pain.

#2 – Singapore

A small city state and Malaysia’s island neighbor to the south, Singapore also has little tolerance for narcotics of any kind, including cannabis.

Like Malaysia, Singaporean law makes use of the death penalty for drug trafficking offenses, with a maximum 10 year prison sentence for possession, as well as the possibility of caning (yes, Singapore still canes many of its convicts).

Notable Stories And Examples

In case anyone questions how serious the Singaporean government is about keeping drugs off the island, visitors at Changi Airport are greeted with an entry card that reads “warning: death for drug traffickers under Singapore law”.  

Not exactly ambiguous.

#3 – China

The country of China has its anti-drug roots grounded in recent history.  While a full breakdown of the 19th Century Opium Wars is beyond the scope of this article, the British imposition of an opium trade in the Middle Kingdom was a national disaster which cost the country its economy (half its GDP was lost) and territory (Hong Kong was ceded to the British), and left a deep psychological imprint on the nation.

So, whether justified or not, the Chinese government is bound and determined to keep drugs off its shores.  While cannabis use is not particularly widespread (the country has a far worse problem with meth and heroine), possession and distribution is treated harshly. 

Notable Stories And Examples

Recent liberalization victories have led the Chinese government to begin a crackdown in the country, with the deputy director of the China National Narcotics Control Commission declaring North American legalization “a new threat to China”.

#4 – South Korea

In a move that shocked people familiar with the country, South Korea made history last year by being the first East Asian nation to legalize and implement a medical marijuana program.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that, despite moving ahead with the program, Korea is still very restrictive when it comes to drugs in general and cannabis in particular.  Drug debate is known for bordering on hysteria, with surveys on public attitude showing that a number of Koreans consider marijuana to be as harmful as other “hard” drugs.

Notable Stories And Examples

In the early 2000’s, the then pre-Gangnam Style Korean pop singer PSY was arrested for possession of marijuana.  The charges not only landed him in jail, but his arrest may have even helped contribute to a ban on his album SSa2 being sold to children under 19 in South Korea.

#5 – The Philippines

While cannabis in the Philippines was made illegal in 1972 under the Dangerous Drugs Act, the plant is still frequently cultivated in remote regions, and one of the more widely consumed drugs.

Over the last few years, the country has seen harsher sentences for drug-related offenses, with current laws punishing cultivators with a potential life sentence in prison.

Notable Stories And Examples

The election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 has come with intense crackdowns and a renewed war on drugs in the Philippines.  Human rights activists estimate that up to 12,000 people have been killed due to police crackdowns and alleged extra-judicial murders (including pot dealers). 

#6 – Japan

A somewhat unexpected entry, Japan, with its quirky subcultures and thriving artistic scene, may not seem like a place you’d associate with draconian drug laws.

And while the punishments may not be as harsh as others on our list (so far nobody has been put to death for weed), Japan is definitely not the place you want to get caught with drugs.  Growing and selling can come with a 10 year prison sentence, while simple possession can get you up to 5.

And like South Korea, Japanese public policy is well-known for its Reaganesque anti-cannabis propaganda.  To date, Japan is the only G10 country with a full ban on medical marijuana.

Notable Stories And Examples

Following the 2018 legalization in Canada, the Japanese consulate in Vancouver issued a warning to its citizens that Japanese laws prohibiting possession and consumption may apply for drug use overseas.

Yes, you heard that correctly – if you’re Japanese and you smoke weed in Canada, you could potentially find yourself facing drug charges (unsurprisingly, the government was cagey on details outlining how they would actually enforce it).

#7 – Saudi Arabia

It should come as a surprise to nobody that a country with a full ban on liquor probably doesn’t take too kindly to pot.  Recreational drugs in the conservative Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia are very much illegal. While executions for drug trafficking are rare, they do happen.  Possession of cannabis can also result in lengthy prison sentences.

Notable Stories And Examples

Those who do choose to both sell and use drugs do so at tremendous personal risk, with drug dealers frequently having to go into hiding from the mutawa (religious police).  Even being caught with a small amount of weed can earn you jail time and/or whippings (the number of “lashes” you receive depends on the extent of your crimes).

#8 – The United Arab Emirates

The UAE may be known for wealth, opulence and debauchery, but drug use is still very much prohibited.  Possession of even small amounts of cannabis can result in jail time, as can testing positive for cannabis metabolites.  For trafficking and distribution, a conviction could potentially include the death penalty (executions in the UAE are carried out by firing squad, hanging or stoning).

Notable Stories And Examples

Under UAE law, possession is punished with a minimum sentence of two years in prison – even for cannabidiol.  Customs officials and police officers arrested over 100 people earlier this year for the crime of vaping CBD at border entry points.

#9 – Indonesia

Similar to Malaysia, Indonesia is another country with a conservative Islamic population and a zero tolerance policy on narcotics, maintaining the use of the death penalty for drugs.

Notable Stories And Examples

Much like Singapore (and most of the countries on this list), Indonesia doesn’t play around when it comes to foreigners.  Pip Holmes, a British man in Bali, was arrested in 2018 for trying to import 31 kilograms of cannabis oil for arthritis pain.  If convicted, Holmes could potentially face life imprisonment or the death penalty.

#10 – Thailand

Like South Korea and its first ever East Asian medical marijuana program, Thailand made history in 2018 by being the first Southeast Asian country to do the same.  

Unfortunately, the tolerance for cannabis (and drugs in general) ends there.  Thailand’s 1979 Narcotics Act makes possession with the intent to distribute punishable by up to 15 years in prison, while possession of under 20 grams comes with up to 5 years behind bars.

Notable Stories And Examples

During the mid-2000’s, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led a brutal drug war that claimed the lives of thousands of Thai people accused of drug trafficking, with thousands more being forced into mandatory rehab facilities.  

Partly as a result of this war, Thailand has the distinction of having 40% of ASEAN’s prison population, while representing only 10% of the total population.

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