A drug charge overseas is serious business, even in a country that has relatively progressive narcotics laws. A drug bust in many countries is a certain and perhaps lengthy jail sentence. And a drug bust in a few countries can mean a death sentence. So before we embark on a guide to give you useful information in case you are unfortunate enough, and stupid enough, to get nailed for possessing drugs for personal use or, worse, for trafficking, the first advice is simple: don’t do it.

But there are those who do do it, and they need to know what their options are when sitting in a foreign jail, or police station, having just been charged with a narcotics violation. The nearest Canadian Embassy or Consulate will be your payphone to the outside world so to speak, but you need to know what the Consulate can do for you, and what they cannot do for you. What the Consulate and any legal aid you hire can theoretically do for you, and what gets decided in a foreign courtroom with a judge who likely does not speak your language and may be applying a legal code that is very tough on drug use, are two very different matters. Inform yourself of services available to you, courtesy of the Canadian Consulate, and inform yourself of the laws of the country you are visiting. And, best of all, don’t do it.


It Could Happen to You

The Don Jail by https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickharris/

Jail by Rick Harris / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

As a government site states, there are about 1,700 Canadians in jail overseas. And slightly more than 500 of them are there on drug charges. Many are in the United States but they are also scattered across jails in 85 different countries. As a tourist, you might get a free pass on silly questions and mangled attempts at speaking the local language. You will never get a free pass on drug violations, even if drug use is common in the country you are charged in. Not speaking the language, not knowing the laws, not understanding what your rights are – none of these are valid reasons for getting lenient treatment from the local judiciary and police forces. In fact, in some countries with large numbers of tourists, sting operations to nab foreigners in possession of recreational drugs can be quite common.

But it’s not just a case of being careful about recreational drug use, or avoiding it altogether, drug traffickers have been known to use unwitting mules to smuggle their ware across borders by slipping the stuff in unknowing travellers’ luggage. They apparently target younger travellers, especially younger women, and seniors. It may seem a touch paranoid for a 68 year old retired engineer to carefully check his luggage before heading to the airport, but nowadays it is a wise precaution to take.


A Few Examples

Drugs By Sam Metsfan (Apartment in New York) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pills [Public Domain]

Each foreign country has its own legal and penal system and some have a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs. Does Tunisia seem a laid back oasis among its North African neighbours? Drug busts can land you 20 years of jail time, plus a fine. Venezuela might have a left-wing socialist government, and even be a suspected transit point for the drug trade in the Caribbean. None of that matters in your case, you may get 30 years of jail time. And then there is the list of countries that can and do apply the death penalty for drugs charges:

Execution By Napoléon Bélanger [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Execution of Stanislau Lacroix by Napoleon Belanger [Public Domain]

  • Algeria
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Malaysia
  • Singapore
  • Thailand

Know that they do post warnings right at the airport often, and pleading ignorance is no way out.


That First Phone Call

The first thing you should do is let the police and any other authorities know in clear language that they understand, that you want to contact the nearest Canadian consular office, or other Canadian or Commonwealth government office . You can instead contact Foreign Affairs Trade & Development Canada’s Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa, if you wish. Any information you give to the consular officials will be protected by the Privacy Act, but please note that the RCMP have their own sources and contacts with local law enforcement agencies around the world. They may release details gleaned from those sources without your consent. As well, any details will only be given to family and friends back home with your consent, for example, to allow them to be disseminated in order to help your case. Again, the RCMP may have knowledge of your case from alternate sources. Your family and friends back home can contact Foreign Affairs’ Consular Services for general information about the country’s legal and penal systems, but specific details will only be released with your consent.


Getting a Lawyer

While consular officials will often have a list of recommended lawyers, they cannot choose or recommend one for you. That is entirely your decision. They do suggest getting a lawyer experienced in your type of case, with the ability to communicate with you in your language and to agree on a fee structure beforehand. Good defense lawyers are expensive but it is recommended you find a way to pay them because public defenders will not be able to devote significant resources and time to your case. Your consular officials can be a liaison between you and your lawyer but you must make any decisions required of you by your legal representative. Please remember to inform your family, giving them any phone numbers and emails of the lawyer you have hired.


What Consular Officials Can Do For You

  • Communicate to your family and friends on the status of your case, and details on the local country’s legal and penal system, as well as act as a contact point between them and your lawyer.
  • Encourage local authorities to give your case equitable treatment, but never preferential treatment.
  • Gain regular access to you and monitor your health and try to ensure you are fed and clothed and have medical and dental care, if possible.
  • Deliver messages, letters, etc., or food or other items of care not available through the prison system.
  • Relay requests for transfer of funds to pay for legal and other expenses and assist in facilitating the transfer of funds.


What Consular Officials Can't Do For You

  • Get you out of jail, post bail, or pay your legal fees.
  • Provide legal advice, or select or recommend a lawyer.
  • Get involved in important legal matters between you and your lawyer.
  • Clear parcels in or out of the country through customs.
  • Bend or break any rules regarding what can and cannot be brought into or taken out of jail.
  • Make travel arrangements for your family or friends.

Family and friends should always check with officials in Ottawa before making travel plans as some country’s penal systems only allow visits at certain times of the year, and may restrict the number of visitors or even the type of visitors allowed, as well as the number of visits allowed. They should be informed of all these details before undertaking a visit to see you in jail abroad.


Serving Out Your Sentence in Canada

Toronto East Detention Centre By GTD Aquitaine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Toronto East Detention Centre [Public Domain]

Canada has treaties with a number of countries for the transfer of prisoners. Go here to see a list, or contact the Correctional Service of Canada. You may have the possibility of a transfer but whether the local country will agree to any transfer to Canada depends on their legal and penal system. In some countries, local state or provincial governments have to agree to your transfer even if their national government has signed a treaty with Canada. If there is no treaty, Canada may enter into an administrative arrangement with the local country on a case-by-case basis.

Remember, the application for a transfer must be initiated by you, and only after you have been convicted and sentenced. As well, you must have at least 6 months remaining on your sentence to be served. Your application for a transfer must be accepted by both Canada and the local authorities in the country where you have been arrested and detained. And although not all foreign charges are considered part of your criminal record in Canada, if you do get transferred, your foreign conviction will be recorded with the Canadian Police Information Centre. Perhaps because of this, some choose to serve out their convictions abroad.


Clemency in Death Penalty Cases

Finally, you may ask the Canadian government to intervene and request that the local government not carry out a death sentence should you have been charged and sentenced to death. It is up to the local authorities to decide whether to grant you clemency from any death penalty you may have been sentenced to.


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