Medicine and Drug Laws

Sep 8, 2009

DANGEROUS MEDICINE
by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.
Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights
The Seamen's Church Institute

In a previous article, I wrote about how seafarers can become victims of illegal drug smuggling. Despite the well-known risks of severe penalties in most countries around the world for trafficking or possessing illegal drugs, some seafarers have been tempted by drug smugglers’ promises of easy money. Unfortunately, instead of receiving “big money” for helping smuggle drugs, many have been arrested, convicted and sentenced to stiff fines and long years in prison.

Most seafarers know about the risks of getting involved with illegal drugs such as heroin, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine, opium and hashish, and they keep well clear of them. They may not, however, realize that possessing common medications might also be illegal in some countries.

For example, seafarers have been detained and arrested in the United Arab Emirates while in transit for possessing prescription medicines.  They mistakenly assumed that their medicines which were legal in the country where they were obtained could be legally possessed everywhere. The United Arab Emirates is one of several countries with very strict drug laws. A variety of drugs normally taken under a doctor's supervision in many countries are classified as narcotics in the UAE. Even poppy seeds that are commonly used for cooking in many countries are illegal there. Persons possessing even small quantities of illegal drugs may be given lengthy prison terms of up to 15 years. Convicted drug traffickers can be sentenced to death.

Seafarers, like other travelers, are often well advised to make sure that they have enough medicine to last throughout their voyage. This is to make sure that they do not run out of their medicine at sea or while in a country where the medications are not available. The availability of a medicine may well depend on a country’s laws and regulations. The regulations for medicines can vary greatly from country to country. For example, an antibiotic that is commonly sold to anyone in the Philippines is strictly controlled and available only by doctor’s prescription in Sweden. A medicine that is a legitimate household remedy in one country might be illegal to possess in another.

Although international law protects vessels and their crews from unreasonable interference by foreign port authorities for activities on the ship, this protection does not apply once you are off the ship. While on shore leave, you are subject to the port state’s laws and regulations. The laws can sometimes be very different from those in your home country. There might be fewer individual legal protections and the legal procedures can be unfamiliar and complicated. Some countries have been known to require visitors to submit to blood or urine tests for drugs. Penalties for breaking laws can be more severe than in your home country for similar offences.  Legal assistance might not be available to assist you if you are accused of a drug offense, and if it is you will probably have to pay the legal fees yourself.

You can avoid many legal problems with your medicines by taking the following precautions:

  • Keep no more medicines than you might reasonably use on your voyage;
  • Make sure you have a copy of your doctor’s prescription for your medicine;
  • Before going ashore in or entering a foreign country, make sure that it is legal to possess your medicine in that country;
  • Do not replenish your ship’s medicine chest by yourself, order medicines through your ship’s agent; and
  • In countries with strict drug laws, keep your medicines locked up in your ship’s medicine chest.