For many international travelers bearing witness to Brittney Griner’s arrest and conviction in Russia for possession of medical cannabis oil is a cautionary tale and a critically important lesson for all international travelers. Putting political issues aside – though they may of course have had a significant impact on both her arrest and conviction, and perhaps her ultimate release – there are several important issues to unpack when thinking about what we pack and how when we head overseas.
First and foremost it is critical to remember that, “The laws of your home country don’t travel with you,” said Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services, and a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
According to Griner’s attorney Maria Blagovolina, Griner had legally obtained the two vape cartridges containing hashish oil that were found in Griner’s luggage at a Moscow airport in February. “The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis,” Blagovolina continued, and “the permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health.”
Secondly, and because those laws don’t voyage with you, travelers must make themselves aware of the local laws at the destinations to be visited before traveling.
In the case of Russia, medical marijuana is not legal. Indeed, many items that are legal in the U.S., are illegal in other parts of the world, “like camouflage attire in the Caribbean or swearing in public in the U.A.E. All are banned in the aforementioned countries and some violations are punishable with jail time,” Richards noted.
While some international travelers may receive just a stern warning, or confiscation of the contraband, the negative possibilities are nearly endless. Travelers could be fined by government officials, arrested, and jailed as Griner has been, or summarily expelled from the country. It’s simply a risk not worth taking.
“The U.S. Department of State’s travel information web page for overseas travel advice explains you are subject to local laws while abroad,” Richards said. “Whether it’s satellite phones in India, Walkie-Talkies in Japan, prescription drugs like Ambien in Singapore, or over-the-counter medications like Sudafed in Greece – they are all illegal. You are bound by those laws. You can’t just say ‘Oops, I didn’t know.’ Ignorance is not an excuse,” Richards said.
Travelers should carefully research the laws around their required medicine in countries they plan to visit and consult medical guidance on substitute medications if you are taking something on the prohibited list for your destination(s). Additionally, while tempting to place legal medicines in generic travel containers or combine them in day packs for ease of use and packing, resist that urge and instead always keep them in their original containers bulky as they may be and take along a copy of the prescriptions.
As we navigate the globe, even those of us who are certain we are world citizens, it is key to remember that we remain guests of the host country we are traveling to and must abide by all local rules. It’s a lesson I relearned 20 years ago when my then toddler daughter was wearing a pair of all-the-rage in the U.S. green camouflage pants. In the Caribbean’s sweltering heat, our bus finally arrived. As the door opened and my daughter attempted to negotiate the large steps, the driver bellowed, “Not on my bus,” quickly slammed the door and drove off leaving us stranded. When we finally made it back to our hotel, I told the proprietor what had transpired, and she explained the local rules. With egg on my face, I tossed the pants in the trash swearing to myself I would never again travel anywhere in ignorance especially when that knowledge is so easily obtainable. Like in so many instances concerning travel and otherwise, knowledge and respect are key.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at [email protected]