Is your medicine legal overseas?

legal drugs

Every Australian with an IQ over 50 knows it’s a bad idea to buy or use street drugs overseas, but what about the ‘legal’ drugs?

The Australian government travel advice website Smartraveller has issued advice and warnings about carrying prescription medication overseas.

You may think just because you have a prescription, you can take your medication anywhere, but, unfortunately, according to Smartraveller, every year Australians travelling overseas need consular help due to carrying or using prescription drugs illegally. 

It’s not just the law that gets them into trouble. Misuse of prescription drugs has caused travellers severe mental distress or landed them in hospital.

Smartravller advises to never buy or use prescription medicine overseas without a valid prescription and medical advice. 

Let’s face it, we’ve all known someone who thought it was a good idea to rock up to a pharmacy or the equivalent in another country and see what they can get away with buying over the counter.

My brother suffers from sleepwalking and once bought some sleeping tablets in an Asian country. They worked a little too well in the end, and not only did he not sleepwalk, he struggled to get through the next day. He threw them out immediately and certainly had no plans to bring them back into Australia through customs. 

“The risks far outweigh any benefits. And if you’re taking medicine that’s legal in Australia, make sure it’s legal where you’re going before you travel,” Smartraveller says. 

Health risks

My brother was lucky, Australians have died from using prescription drugs they’ve illegally bought overseas.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t matter if you’ve used the drug before. 

“The purity and strength of drugs in other countries can vary widely from what you may be familiar with,” Smartraveller says.

As in Australia, possessing or using prescription drugs without a prescription is usually illegal in most other countries.

People behave differently on holiday and adding drugs into that mix can be potentially dangerous or even lethal.

And it’s not just taking the drugs, the after-effects and side-effects of unknown over-the-counter or prescription drugs can also be dangerous. 

Experiencing a come-down in an unfamiliar place without your normal support network can make the effects harder to cope with. Particularly the mental health impacts,” Smartraveller says.

“Depending on where you have travelled, you may not have access to help. Attitudes and beliefs about physical illness and mental health can vary greatly across different countries. 

“Mental health conditions aren’t always accepted the way they are in Australia.

“You could be arrested or jailed if you break the law during a mental health episode. If the drugs you have taken are illegal there, authorities could charge you.”

Harsh penalties

Everyone in Australia could name people who became infamous for trying to smuggle drugs into another country.

When travelling overseas you are subject to their laws and penalties, not ours, and some of them can be harsh by Australian standards. 

Australians love travelling to Singapore, but that country executed 15 people for drug-related offences between March 2022 and July 2023. 

Even small amounts of illegal drugs can get you arrested or jailed in many countries and many local authorities are also known to target areas where tourists are known to buy and use drugs. 

And don’t rely on the idea that the Australian government can help you. Consular officials can offer advice and legal support but just as another country can’t demand one of their citizens be released from an Australian jail, Australia can’t demand a citizen be released from another country’s jail.

Controlled and banned medicines

Just because a drug is legal in Australia, doesn’t mean it’s legal in your destination country. 

Some common medicines are considered illegal or a controlled substance in other countries. Commonly restricted drugs include:

  • amphetamines, such as ADHD medications
  • medical marijuana/cannabis, including cannabis-based oils and creams, hemp-based products, CBD, THC, hash and edibles
  • opioid-based painkillers, such as codeine
  • medication containing pseudoephedrine, such as cold and flu tablets
  • sleeping pills
  • anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines.

Smartraveller advises checking with the embassy of the countries you’re visiting. Information on restrictions is often available in the travel advisory for each country.

Even if your medicine is legal, always carry it in its original packaging with its prescription label. It can also be a good idea to carry:

  • a copy of your prescription. Make sure it includes the dosage prescribed or recommended, and matches the prescribed dosage on the medication packaging exactly
  • a letter from your doctor stating the medicine is for personal medical use.

If you rely on prescription medication, make an appointment with your doctor to ensure you have enough medication for your trip as well as a spare prescription. If you have checked with the consular staff in your destination country and discovered your medication is illegal in that country, your doctor may be able to recommend a legal alternative. 

It’s also a good idea to think carefully about your destination. If taking your usual medication is going to be a hassle or there is not enough medical infrastructure support if something goes wrong, it may be a good idea to tweak your plans to another itinerary. 

Smartraveller says stopping or forgetting to take medications while on holiday is one of the biggest causes of mental health episodes for Australians overseas.

Returning to Australia with controlled drugs

Some drugs that are restricted in Australia are legal to buy overseas. Be aware that you can’t bring these drugs back through Australian border control. Doing so will get you into trouble.

To check what you can bring into Australia, visit the Australian Border Force.

But when it doubt, throw it out. 

Have you ever carried a prescription drug overseas? Did you have any trouble going through customs? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: How to cut car rental costs

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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