Tourism remains one of the world’s biggest industries. In 2011, international tourist receipts passed $1 trillion for the first time in history, signaling the revival of a robust and popular activity for hundreds of millions of people. But there is another, more troubling side to these numbers: it’s how many people embark on drug tourism, a form of international drug sampling that is fraught with danger.
What Is Drug Tourism?
By its basic definition, “drug tourism” is travel explicitly for the purpose of obtaining and/or using drugs. These drugs might not be available in the user’s country of origin, or they may be prohibitively priced, hence the need to find a source of the drugs elsewhere. In some cases, the drugs are legal and affordable, but a user nonetheless travels for the purpose of using those drugs because of some kind of event or occasion that fosters chemical celebration.
The need for the drugs may be either recreational or medicinal in nature, and the drugs themselves can be legal (such as alcohol, tobacco or marijuana in certain jurisdictions) or illegal (like cocaine, drugs derived from psychedelic mushrooms).
There are an incredible number of risks involved when embarking on a trip for the purpose of acquiring and/or using drugs, even for seemingly legitimate reasons like buying medical marijuana. Some of these risks are:
- Being detained and incarcerated in a foreign country, where a tourist may not know the language or the customs
- Requiring emergency medical assistance in remote areas, or being unable to explain a medical background due to language barriers
- Being at the mercy of local crime organizations in countries where the trade of drugs is illegal and exclusively on the black market
- Being at the mercy of overly enthusiastic or corrupt law enforcement agencies
- Contributing to local crime, poverty and social destabilization
- Unknowingly transporting drugs across borders, as a result of drugs being planted in baggage
- Being exposed to other health concerns, like HIV
Colombia is renowned for its cocaine, so much so that The Guardian writes “the drug is becoming a tourist attraction in itself.” More and more people – mostly young Europeans and Americans – travel to remote regions of the country, like San Agustin and Ciudad Perdida, lured by promises of visiting a “cocaine factory” where visitors can create their own cocaine.
However, those promises conceal a very ugly truth: unspeakable acts of violence, kidnapping, and the danger of being caught in the crossfire of an armed conflict that started in 1964. And notwithstanding the Colombian government’s attempts to distance itself from its reputation of being “the world’s supermarket for illegal drugs” (according to Foreign Policy), and making significant moves against the cartels and guerilla organizations that control the drug trade (destroying 144 tons of cocaine and 350,000 gallons of cocaine-producing chemicals in 2008, and destroying 25 percent of the land where the coca leaf was being cultivated), Colombia will likely retain crippling levels of financial inequality, among the worst in the world and drug tourists who do not care about the consequences of using cocaine – heart attacks, seizures, and kidney failure, to name a few — will likely not be particularly bothered about the effects their activities have on the fragile progress Colombia has made in shedding its notorious past.
Ceding ground to the undeniable popularity of cocaine, the Colombian government decriminalized the drug; while the sale of cocaine is illegal, possessing less than one gram of cocaine for personal consumption has been legal since 1994. Indeed, Vice notes that despite all the effort carried out by the Colombian military to win the drug war – including “police [regularly] searching sketchy-looking tourists” – cocaine remains as easy as ever to find.
However, even as the Colombian government makes life harder for drug smugglers and drug tourists (albeit with mixed results), neighboring Peru to the south is taking over. With over 50 percent of rural Peruvians living below the poverty line, conditions were ripe for Peru to overtake Colombia as the world’s biggest producer of cocaine. Throwing fuel onto the fire is what The Fix calls “the continent’s most liberal drug laws,” allowing legal possession of a number of different types of drugs, and “greatly reduced […] persecution or imprisonment.” However, police officers are empowered to use their discretion when it comes to applying these laws; tourists with even legal amounts of drugs can be subject to, as the director of the Human Rights Research Center in Lima writes, “a lack of criteria for proportionality.”
“Buyer beware,” sardonically warns The Fix. As (relatively) attractive as this would be to drug tourists, Peru offers another danger to a traveler looking for an exotic high.
Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from specific combinations of plants, vines, and shrubs, was used for ceremonial and healing purposes by the indigenous peoples of the Amazonian Peru region. Today, it has found popularity among many celebrities and curious tourists who want to seek an understanding of themselves and a connection to a higher intelligence, as Village Voice puts it. However, ayahuasca is also known to cause vomiting, diarrhea, and psychological distress, and death as a result of ayahuasca consumption is not unheard of.
In 2011, a British man (styling himself as a “shaman”) was jailed for administering ayahuasca at a healing ceremony. According to The Guardian, participants at the ceremony were told that the ayahuasca would cure serious illnesses, including cancer. Ayahuasca contains compounds of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), itself a psychedelic, and it is DMT, which is in the top tier of controlled drugs in the United Kingdom. Similarly, it is a Schedule I drug in the United States.
In 2012, an American teenager died after traveling to Peru with the intention of taking part in an ayahuasca ritual. Police arrested the shaman who administered the “excessive dose of ayahuasca.” And in 2014, a teenaged British backpacker died after consuming ayahuasca twice in two days. He was with a group of tourists who had paid $50 for the “shaman experience.” The body of the 19-year-old individual was found dumped on the side of the road after suffering what appeared to be an allergic reaction to the ayahuasca.
‘Opening the Mind to Deeper Realities’
Nonetheless, the idea of traveling to Peru to experience what ayahuasca has to offer entices many looking for respite from depression, cancer, and alcoholism. Taxi drivers put interested individuals in touch with shamans, with one driver comparing the situation to how cocaine and marijuana are sold in Amsterdam.
Covering the death of the American teenager, Men’s Journal details some of the inherent dangers of drug tourism. There is, of course, no regulation involved in the administration of the drugs, so tourists are at the mercy of individuals who call themselves “shamans,” but who may be cartel operatives, kidnappers, or rapists, or who are simply incompetent and oblivious to the risks involved with giving psychotropic substances to young, impressionable, and gullible people looking to get high.
Of course, even if they are not working on behalf of a crime ring, some of these “shamans” are all too aware of the propensity for drug tourists to lower their guards, captivated by a quaint and naive idea of ancient mysticism being the solution to the “greed, power and vice” problems of the modernized Western world. Young men and women risk being taken advantage of – either financially or sexually, or both – by “charlatans” who say all the right things about how ayahuasca will “open their minds to deeper realities.” Those are the words of the shaman who eventually admitted that the American teenager who came to him for ayahuasca had died after taking it, and whose body was buried on the site of the ayahuasca lodge run by the shaman, which charged more than $2,000 for participation in the ritual.
To the north of Peru and Colombia is Mexico. Although Mexico has been gripped by a drug war since 2006, where more than 60,000 people have been slaughtered, the city of Tijuana remains a fixture for tens of thousands of young American college students looking to blow off steam during spring break. In 2012, Tijuana braced itself for an influx of more than 35,000 visitors, despite the U.S. State Department issuing a travel warning for Mexico. The previous year, the deaths of 120 murdered Americans in the country were linked to the ongoing drug war.
Stratfor Global Intelligence advises that since there is a pervasive fear of corruption among Mexico’s police force, many of whom are on the payroll of various cartels, law enforcement has generally been turned over to the army, and visitors to Mexico should be aware of the difference.
The Rite of Passage
Why does Tijuana remain such a popular destination, even with such a threat of bloodshed hanging over the spring break celebration? Forbes magazine explains that American culture looks at spring break as a rite of passage. There is the promise of fun, socializing, and travel; but there is the danger of binge drinking, which is encouraged among young people who may be away from the supervision of parents and dormitory resident advisors for the first time. The lower drinking age in Mexico – 18 – and cheap prices undoubtedly promote this.
Forbes quotes a study by the American College of Health that men on spring break report drinking as many as 18 drinks in a single day, and Vice quotes figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that point out that “roughly 25 percent of 18 to 20 year olds” embark on spring break trips to party, and not just with alcohol: among the other substances consumed in this “conformist revelry” are weed and MDMA.
The Atlantic estimates that Panama City, Florida (the “spring break capital of the world”) welcomes 500,000 college students every year who buy “bad booze in bulk” and spend $170 million in six weeks. Not coincidentally, the crime rate in Panama City spikes in the month of March.
From the Americas to Asia – a writer for The Atlantic says that even though she spent time in South America, she was unprepared for the “strong focus on drug culture” in Southeast Asia, especially in the “Golden Triangle” of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. In 2009, Myanmar accounted for 17 percent of the global cultivation of opiates, producing 330 tons, according to the 2010 World Drug Report. As the drugs spread across borders, tourists looking to sample some of the fabled opium from the Orient arrived.
What they find in Southeast Asia is more than just opium. In Cambodia, pizza joints offer marijuana as a topping. In Thailand, getting prescription medication requires no prescription; Xanax, a former backpacker told The Atlantic, is sold “like Tic Tacs”. In Veng Vieng, Laos, bartenders at riverside bars offer backpackers – often 19-year old British students –magic mushroom milkshakes and hash.
Full Moon Parties
A unique offering of Southeast Asia are the so-called “full moon parties” of Koh Phangan, Thailand. All-night beach gatherings held before or after every full moon, they are primarily attended by foreigners. Tourists are warned that “Marijuana and Magic Mushrooms are Illegal in Thailand,” and police are very stringent in enforcing that law (prompted by concerns from the British Embassy over the safety of its citizens); however, the culture of drugs is such that Slate held no punches in calling full moon parties “debauched, depraved and increasingly deadly.”
While the origins of the party were innocuous enough, the combination of imported drugs from other countries, crime, curious tourists, and a preexisting use of mushrooms as a social food item have led full moon parties to, both willingly and otherwise, an infamous reputation. Today, tourists come to Koh Phangan to “get very drunk,” and police work openly and undercover to clamp down criminals selling Ecstasy to college students as young as 18 years old.
In November 2014, Thai authorities announced that a number of full moon related-parties would be banned for reasons of “drug and alcohol.” Thailand is no longer interested in entertaining drug tourists whose sole reason for coming to Thailand is drinking and using drugs, the police chief of the Koh Phangan district told Australia’s News.com.au, which wryly noted that thousands of the country’s backpackers would have to come up with alternative travel plans, with only one full moon party allowed to operate.
The report quoted locals who speculated that drug tourists still looking for unregulated parties would likely go to Cambodia and Myanmar to get their fix. Perhaps related, Thailand has drug laws that have been called “downright medieval,” requiring forced rehab of drug addicts and people caught possessing drugs, with the United Nations calling on the Thai government to end a program it calls “counterproductive.”
It’s Amsterdam, of course, that many people think of when the topic of drug tourism comes up. The capital city of the Netherlands is a common destination for travelers from all over Europe and America, who want to enjoy the vices of legalized prostitution and open marijuana consumption. As The Fix writes in “The World’s Best Drug Laws,” many drug tourists to Amsterdam enjoy the “thrill” of buying marijuana and smoking it like an adult, perhaps in full view of law enforcement. When they arrive, however, they might be in for a bit of a surprise.
While the Netherlands has traditionally been known for its progressive and open policies (gay rights, immigration, regulated prostitution, and “illegal, but not enforceable” marijuana laws, for example), the Dutch government has taken steps to eliminate some of the problems that arise from drug tourism. In response to locals’ complaints of foreign travelers causing traffic jams, providing a market for harder drugs (which are illegal in the Netherlands), publicly urinating, and vomiting, and to crack down on tourists trying to smuggle legally purchased marijuana across the borders to their countries of origin, tourists are banned from entering cannabis cafes. Cafes in targeted provinces will only serve customers who are licensed members.
The city of Amsterdam refused to comply with the law, perhaps for financial reasons, as 33 percent of visitors come to the city for the purpose of sampling the cannabis on offer. Nonetheless, even Amsterdam has to abide by restrictions placed on the amount of marijuana that can be sold, and tourists have to be of legal age to purchase any cannabis goods. CNN cautions that tourists will also have to be aware that while marijuana laws are not enforceable, police will – and do – keep an eye on visitors who come to Amsterdam expecting a pot utopia.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton