December 4th, 2023
As the world has become more interconnected, travellers seek unique experiences you won’t find in your basic travel guide. Amid this quest for novel adventures, an alarming trend has emerged: drug tourism. This phenomenon isn’t about savouring the local cuisine or immersing yourself in indigenous cultures; it revolves around the consumption of psychoactive substances, often in places where they are either decriminalised, legal or simply more accessible. While the allure of exotic lands and mind-altering substances can sound incredibly exciting, drug tourism raises many ethical, legal and health concerns.
In this article, we will delve into the growing realm of drug tourism, exploring its popular destinations, inherent risks and the deeper implications it holds for the individual and societies at large.
The global hotspots of drug tourism
Drug tourism is not confined to one region but is a global phenomenon with hotspots on nearly every continent. Each offers a different substance and experience, with some of the most popular including:
Amsterdam stands out as the ultimate destination for tourists seeking a legal and immersive marijuana experience. The city is adorned with a plethora of coffee shops where patrons can purchase and enjoy Amsterdam’s finest cannabis products through smoking, consumption of edibles, and even beverages.
Amsterdam weed, along with the city’s red light district and many bars and clubs, has made Amsterdam a favourite for stag parties and lad’s holidays, but these often overshadow the amazing cultural and historical attractions the city offers. Amsterdam boasts a stunning canal system, world-class museums like the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum and a poignant history exemplified by Anne Frank’s House. The city’s architecture, bicycle-friendly streets, and vibrant art scene allow tourists to immerse themselves in its authentic charm.
South America is synonymous with one drug in particular, cocaine, and this association has shaped the continent’s history, politics and culture over the last century. While the sale of cocaine is illegal in every country in South America, it is still widely available, and its relative cheapness and high potency bring people from around the world. Bolivia even has an illegal pop-up bar, Route 36, where customers can order cocaine on the menu.
In addition to cocaine, there are also various places in South America to try hallucinogens. For example, tourists can buy magic mushrooms across the region, which are far stronger than in the UK. Several ayahuasca retreats are available in Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere, allowing tourists to drink the mythical DMT-containing brew.
However, there is so much more to South America than drugs. Known for its diverse landscapes, beautiful beaches and vibrant music, South America’s real treasures lie in its warm people, sprawling cities and rich cultural festivals. Cities like Medellín, once notorious for drug cartels, have transformed and are now celebrated for innovation and community projects.
The Golden Triangle, covering parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, has a deep history of opium production. Some tourists, particularly backpackers, are attracted to regions like this to experiment with drugs like opium or even its stronger variant, heroin. Vang Vieng in Laos, for instance, was once notorious for its drug bars before government interventions curbed such activities, but opium is still widely available in many backpacker areas. Cannabis and magic mushrooms are also common across Southeast Asia, and Thailand recently legalised cannabis for personal consumption.
However, Southeast Asia is far more than easy weed or opium pizzas. The entire region is home to pristine beaches, ancient temples, vibrant markets and some of the best street food you will ever eat!
The ethical and legal dimensions of drug tourism
Drug tourism might be seen as a quest for a unique experience, but weighing this against the broader societal and personal consequences is crucial. The drug trade has altered the very fabric of some communities, and the brief pleasure of drug use can have lasting repercussions:
Different countries have varying stances on drug possession and consumption. While marijuana may be tolerated in Amsterdam, possession in other nations could lead to severe penalties, including long prison sentences and even death. Travellers often mistakenly assume there will be leniency for foreigners or that they can bribe local law enforcement, but in most countries, laws apply uniformly regardless of your tourist status.
There is also the chance that naive or opportunistic tourists can get entangled in drug smuggling schemes, believing they can make some quick money. A notorious case that captured international attention was that of two British and Irish girls, Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid, who were arrested in Peru in 2013 for attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the country. They served prolonged prison sentences in harsh conditions, highlighting the immense risks of getting involved in the illicit drug trade.
Click the image below to hear their story:
The drug trade has deep links to crime, violence and societal decay, and by engaging in drug tourism, individuals inadvertently support these darker aspects. For instance, the drug industry in Mexico funds the cartels that cause widespread, suffering including murders, kidnappings, rapes and people trafficking.
In areas like the Golden Triangle, deforestation for poppy cultivation damages delicate ecosystems and affects local communities and nature. Tourists, in their pursuit of a fleeting high, often overlook the longer-lasting ecological impact of their choices and the harm it does to the native people.
Engaging in drug tourism can lead to a skewed representation of a country’s cultural heritage as places rich in history, art and traditions get overshadowed by the drug narrative. Amsterdam, for example, is home to canals, art museums and historical landmarks, but for many, it is primarily associated with weed. Such limited perspectives can perpetuate stereotypes and demean the authentic essence of a destination.
Health and safety
Beyond the legal and ethical risks, unregulated doses, unknown dealers and impaired judgement can all prove lethal. Tourists, lured by the novelty of affordable substances, may underestimate the potency of indigenous drugs, combine them recklessly with alcohol or other substances or be preyed upon by local criminals in the drug trade.
The rise of drug tourism underscores a broader trend of seeking intensified experiences in foreign lands. While it can be very tempting to let loose and try something you would never do at home, it is essential to remember the broader implications. Travel is an opportunity to embrace new cultures, understand histories and make lasting memories, and while drug tourism may offer a seemingly exciting escape, it comes with several legal, ethical and personal risks. Some drug tourists get into trouble with local criminals, engage in illegal activity and even become addicted to the drugs they were so excited to try.
In the latter case, Oasis Runcorn provides expert resources, comprehensive treatment options and ongoing support to address drug addiction and recovery. Our approach emphasises understanding the underlying reasons for substance use, offering strategies for coping and promoting holistic well-being. Get in touch with us today to find out more.
(Click here to see works cited)
- BBC Three. “High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule.” YouTube, 24 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oc27T3rx1t0&ab_channel=BBCThree . Accessed 1 October 2023.
- Doyle, Kevin. “’Tip of the spear’: Battling the Golden Triangle’s drug lords.” Al Jazeera, 2 March 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/2/hld-tip-of-the-spear-taking-on-the-golden-triangles-druglords . Accessed 1 October 2023.
- Levy, Ariel. “The Ayahuasca Boom in the U.S.” The New Yorker, 5 September 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/12/the-ayahuasca-boom-in-the-u-s . Accessed 1 October 2023.
- Vice News. “This Is What Bolivia’s Notorious Cocaine Cocktail Bar Is Actually Like.” VICE, 5 August 2015, https://www.vice.com/en/article/4wbaym/this-is-what-bolivias-legendary-cocaine-bar-is-actually-like-903 . Accessed 1 October 2023.