Drug penalties vary widely around the globe. In the countries with the strictest laws, possessing an illicit substance can lead to hefty fines, physical punishment, life imprisonment, and even execution. However, other countries with more liberal policies have decriminalized drugs, instituted “harm reduction” programs for people struggling with addiction, and placed an emphasis on diversion programs that provide treatment and education rather than doling out punishments through the criminal justice system.
We produced an interactive calculator that shows the range of drug penalties in 44 countries around the world. If you enter the country name, drug, and drug amount, you can see the sentence for that particular charge. We also visualized the harshest consequences, and for selected nations, we examined whether strict penalties are effectively discouraging the possession and abuse of illicit substances in these societies. Read on for a surprising look at drug penalties around the world.
Substance Penalties by Country
Use the pulldown menu to select a country, substance, and amount to discover the potential consequences. As you can see, punishments for drug possession vary greatly from country to country.
The Longest Drug Crime Incarcerations
In some countries, possession of illegal substances can draw lengthy prison sentences. Some areas have “presumption of trafficking” policies that assume the possession of a drug over a certain amount indicates an intention to sell.
In Nigeria, having any amount of cannabis, coca leaves, cocaine, heroin, LSD, or opium can draw a prison sentence of 15 to 25 years. However, it does not appear that the country’s strict sentencing policy has dampened the rate of drug use. According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared with the rest of the countries we examined, Nigeria has among the highest percentage of the population who use marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and opioids. Although the country has a high rate of treatment for marijuana users, only around 1 percent of cocaine users, 2.8 percent of amphetamine users, and 0.7 percent of opioid users receive treatment.
In Turkey, possessing any amount of an illicit substance can get a person eight to 20 years in prison. And in the United Arab Emirates, drug possession can draw a sentence of four to 15 years, as well as a potential fine. Turkey has comparatively low rates of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamine, and opioid use. The United Arab Emirates is a mixed bag, however, with a relatively high rate of marijuana use but a lower prevalence of opioid use.
In the United States, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes has historically been a controversial issue. Critics argue that mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime and point to numerous examples of sentences too harsh for the offense. For instance, one young American woman struggling with a substance disorder began to sell drugs to fund her addiction. In 2009, when she was sentenced, she had already quit drugs and gotten a job – however, minimum sentencing laws dictated that she receive a 15-year sentence.
However, in comparison with some of these countries, U.S. drug sentences appear relatively mild. According to a 2015 report by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), Mississippi averaged the longest sentences for drug trafficking convictions, at 121 months, or just over 10 years. In South Carolina, the average sentence was 115 months, or nearly 9.6 years. On the other hand, drug trafficking sentences in Arizona averaged 29 months (just under 2.5 years), while they averaged 30 months (2.5 years) in New Mexico.
Substances That Draw Lengthy Incarcerations
We broke down the average maximum sentence length for each illicit drug in the 44 countries we examined to see how penalties for each substance stack up. Possession of opium and morphine garner the longest maximum prison sentences – each averages just over seven years, with opium imprisonment slightly lengthier.
Possession of heroin and methadone each draws an average maximum sentence of around six years. Only two drug categories prompt incarcerations of fewer than six years: amphetamine and ecstasy/MDMA.
According to the UNODC, approximately 246 million people used an illicit drug of some type during 2013. This represents just over 5 percent of people worldwide aged 15 to 64. UNODC’s data reveal that opiate use (heroin and opium) has remained stable, while cocaine use has declined overall. However, the use of cannabis and prescription opioids has risen.
Among people who struggle with substance use disorders worldwide, only 1 in 6 has access to treatment. The UNODC urges the adoption of “long-term medical evidence-based solutions” to combat the drug issue.
Serving a Life Sentence
In the United States, life imprisonment sentences are quite uncommon – in fact, in 2013, only 0.4 percent of sentences were for life imprisonment: 153 people received life sentences without parole, and another 168 received sentences so lengthy they were comparable to life imprisonment. These cases most frequently involved drug trafficking, murder, firearms, and extortion/racketeering.
However, some countries dole out life sentences for drug possession. In Kuwait, for instance, having any amount of an illicit substance can lead to life in prison. An anonymous drug user in the country recently told the Kuwait Times that despite the watchful eye of law enforcement, the underground drug culture in the country is flourishing. The UNODC reports that just over 3 percent of people in Kuwait use marijuana, 0.04 percent use cocaine, 0.27 percent use amphetamines, and 0.17 percent use opioids.
In Cyprus, possessing any amount of cannabis, ecstasy/MDMA, or heroin can draw a life sentence. In other countries, you must have a minimum amount of various substances to receive a life sentence, ranging from 5 grams to 100 kilograms. In Cyprus, 2.2 percent of people use marijuana, 0.3 percent use cocaine, 0.3 percent use amphetamines, and 0.12 percent use opioids.
Dying for a Drug Crime
In some countries, people who are convicted for possession of certain amounts of drugs pay the ultimate price – their lives. Malaysia, Iran, and Bangladesh are among the more than 30 countries known to hand down death sentences for drug-related crimes. Several countries do not provide accurate data on executions, which makes the death rate difficult to monitor.
According to Amnesty International, Iran has an “unprecedented” execution rate. In 2015, 977 people were executed in Iran – and the majority were for crimes related to drugs. The country also executes juvenile offenders, which breaks international law. The number of executions in the other countries we examined are low in comparison.
Death sentences for drugs is a much-criticized policy – and in fact, a violation of international law. Policies vary so drastically that in some areas people can be put to death for simply having a small amount of marijuana. Some might argue it serves as the ultimate deterrent to crime. However, when recently urging his country to reinstate the death penalty, even the president-elect of the Philippines said that execution is meant to serve as “retribution” rather than a deterrent. In Iran, an expert at Iran’s Centre for Strategic Research admitted that utilizing the death penalty as a punishment has not decreased drug trafficking. And in Bangladesh, drug abuse has apparently skyrocketed, despite the threat of execution for possessing certain amounts of illicit substances.
Physical Pain for Possession
Two countries stand out for their draconian corporal punishments for people convicted of drug possession. In Iran, possessing even a small amount of certain drugs can draw a sentence of lashings. The beatings are administered with a 3-foot-long whip; for many, the extreme pain causes fainting before even 10 lashings are delivered. Malaysia also hands down physical punishment in the form of caning. An Amnesty International report describes extreme skin injuries and scars caused by “strokes” from a 1-plus-meter-long cane.
Officials say that of Iran’s 80 million citizens, over 2.2 million are addicted to illicit drugs – with opiates the main drug people consume. Drug use has skyrocketed despite the threat of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. Two reasons contribute to the issue: Drug dealers in Iran command large profits, and Iran is the gateway for Afghanistan, which is the leading exporter of drugs in the region. Malaysia, too, experiences a relatively high rate of drug use: 1.6 percent of the population use cannabis, 0.94 percent use opioids, 0.55 percent use amphetamines or amphetamine-like stimulants, and 0.44 percent use ecstasy.
Substance Use Treatment Solutions
In many of the countries we explored, people who reside in or even visit countries with harsh drug laws can receive drastic penalties: corporal punishment, life sentences, and even death. However, some countries have extremely liberal drug laws. For instance, in the Netherlands, although the sale of “soft drugs” (cannabis) in coffee shops is technically a crime, the coffee shops are not prosecuted. The government allows these sales in hopes of preventing users of soft drugs from encountering hard drugs. These differing philosophies underscore the vast range of policies around the world.
Although punishments for drug crimes in the United States can be harsh, possession of illicit substances does not lead to corporal punishment or execution. A Pew Research report revealed that nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe the country should focus on offering treatment for users of illicit drugs rather than pushing for prosecution. Indeed, studies show that sending offenders to treatment programs rather than prison actually cuts down on crime and saves billions of dollars. For someone struggling with a substance use disorder, finding the right treatment program is vital to success. If you or someone you love need information or assistance finding the right treatment program, visit DrugAbuse.com or call 1-888-744-0069 to get in touch with an admissions specialist. There’s no better day than today to start the recovery process.
We gathered laws about simple drug possession from 44 different countries. View our collected data, as well as our sources for each country, here.