Current Issue

The Law
of the Land

By Janis Lazda and Anna Weinberg
Sometimes governmental search-and-destroy missions target the drugs themselves, and sometimes they target the users and traffickers. A border-crossing look at where drug possession will get you a slap on the hand — and where it might earn you a death sentence

Assume, for argument’s sake, that drugs are dangerous; they’re toxic, and/or addictive; and drug trafficking is a lawless, often violent economy. Entire political and religious dominions have been predicated on the idea that we must be protected from this menace. How, exactly? The answer varies radically.
     On the lenient end of the spectrum, most of the European Union has decriminalized consumption of cannabis
(the softest of the “soft” drugs); only Sweden, France, Finland, and Greece still have penalties on the books — with possession being a jailable offense (except in France).
     Decriminalization like this has a built-in paradox: selling drugs is still illegal in the majority of these countries, so theoretically law-abiding cannabis users still have to do business with criminals. This paradox is skirted in the Netherlands (and soon in Switzerland too), where the recreational drug market is regulated — think of those notorious Dutch coffee shops — with the goal of separating it from the more dangerous, criminal underworld of hard drugs. Soviet-era repression and coercion is still the policy of choice in Russia, an approach that focues penalties conversely on users (for most of the last decade, nearly 80 percent of punishable drug offenses involved possession of minor quantities). Over several decades, policy in Iran
Panama City, 2004
Cocaine seized by the Panamanian police in
the first major drug bust of the year.
PHOTO BY Arnulfo Franco
instead has cycled through phases of aggressive combat of trafficking, to more liberal registration of addicts and rationing of opium, to the Islamic Republic’s hard-core tactics of execution, arrest, and imprisonment of users and dealers. Ultimately all Iran’s different approaches have proved ineffective in the face of powerful market forces. Despite the execution of up to 500 traffickers per year under the Islamic regime, drug prices and availability are still dictated largely by the harvest and by opium production.
     The law, in other words, is often helpless in the face of supply and demand. To counter that helplessness, governments frequently turn to spectacle, showcasing giant confiscations, torching tons of loot at a time, and, most dramatically, holding public executions.  
Tehran, 2003
Iranian police burn 40 tons of seized drugs. Iran, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, make up “The Golden Crescent,” small network of producers and traffickers that controls an enormous percentage of the world’s opium market.
PHOTO BY Morteza Nikoubazl
San Juanito, Colombia, 2003
The bodies of two alleged FARC (revolutionary
armed forces of Colombia) soldiers along
with 500 lbs of cocaine seized during an antidrug
operation involving 5,000 Colombian soldiers.
PHOTO BY Efrain Patino
BahÍa MÁlaga,
Colombia, 2004

Soldiers guard at least 3,000 lbs of
cocaine confiscated in a raid.
PHOTO BY Eduardo MuÑoz
Tehran, 2001
A public execution of drug dealers. There have been thousands of such executions in Iran since 1989.
Guangzhou, China, 2001
The police lead away a 21-year-old Chinese
woman who has just been condemned to
death in a public sentencing on charges of
smuggling 3.3 lbs of heroin.
Bang Kwang Prison,
near Bangkok, 2001

Mug shot of one of five drug smugglers killed by firing squad in Thailand’s first televised execution, publicized to deter drug trafficking.
On the Books

Penalties for Possession of 20 Grams of Marijauna (40 Joints)

Roll over the circles on the right to discover each location's penalty.
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