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.
Never buy or use prescription medicine overseas without a valid prescription and medical advice. 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.
The health risks of misusing prescription drugs overseas
Australians have died from using prescription drugs they've illegally bought overseas.
They may be easier to access than in Australia, but buying and using illegal prescription drugs overseas is never safe. Even if the source seems legitimate. 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.
Taking prescribed drugs for a non-prescribed purpose can have serious consequences to your health and wellbeing. These include:
- memory loss
- anxiety and depression
- being irritable or aggressive – you could become violent towards others
- developing skin rashes
- weight gain
- fertility issues
- becoming dependent on the drug
- death – especially when combined with other drugs, such as alcohol.
Possessing or using prescription drugs without a prescription is usually illegal.
Misusing drugs overseas can also lead to risk-taking behaviour that can end in serious injury or death, including
- falling from a height
As drugs are processed and eliminated from your body, the effects wear off – you experience a ‘come down’. The after-effects vary depending on what drugs were taken and can be mental and/or physical. They commonly include:
- extreme tiredness.
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.
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.
Read more about the effects of taking drugs.
Harsh penalties exist for drug offences
You're subject to all local laws and penalties in your destination, including those that may appear harsh by Australian standards. Several Australians in foreign countries have received the death penalty for drug offences. Even small amounts of illegal drugs can get you arrested or jailed.
Local authorities can target areas where tourists are known to buy and use drugs. They're unlikely to be lenient just because you're Australian.
The help the Australian Government can provide to Australians who break the law overseas is limited. It can't override the laws and penalties of another country, and it can’t get you out of detention, prison or legal proceedings.
Controlled and banned medicines
Recreational drugs aren't the only thing that can get you in trouble. 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.
Make sure your prescription or over-the-counter medicines aren't illegal in your destination countries. Check 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.
Travelling with medication can be difficult and it means you need to plan ahead. Talk to your doctor and tell them your travel plans. They may be able to help you navigate how to legally take your medications with you. Or they may recommend an alternative medicine that’s legal where you’re going.
You may need to reconsider going somewhere that doesn’t allow a medicine your wellbeing depends on. Not taking a medicine could trigger a mental health condition, and some medicines cause severe side effects when stopped suddenly. 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 in to trouble.
To check what you can bring in to Australia, visit the Australian Border Force.
If this article has raised any concerns for you, the following support and education services are available.
- Drug help (Department of Health and Aged Care)
- How to help someone who is misusing drugs or alcohol (HealthDirect)
- The Family Drug Support hotline (FDS)
- The Self-help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC)