A U.S. citizen is reported to have been detained in Dubai for having smoked marijuana.
In Las Vegas.
Where it’s legal.
Peter Clark, 51, had been in Dubai for one day when he fell ill with pancreatitis and was rushed to the hospital, according to the Daily Mail. Nurses took a urine sample that showed traces of the drug. As required by Dubai law, they informed the police of the results.
Clark had last smoked marijuana days before flying from his home in Las Vegas on a business trip in the United Arab Emirates. Since being released from the hospital he has been required to stay in his hotel while awaiting a decision as to whether prosecutors will charge him.
“I was absolutely stunned to learn that I was being charged due to residual marijuana in my system,” he told the Mail. “I smoked it legally back in America long before I even got on the plane. I knew about Dubai’s strict drugs laws but never for one moment did I think something I legally did in my own country would lead to my arrest.”
Not the first time
This isn’t the first time a foreigner has been arrested in Dubai or elsewhere for legal behavior performed before arriving in the country where the same action is illegal. In 2019, U.K. citizen Laleh Shahravresh was arrested for insulting her ex-husband’s new wife in a Facebook comment, according to Detained in Dubai. Shahravresh reportedly had made the posts three years earlier when she was in London, but she and her teenage daughter were detained when they flew to the Dubai to attend a funeral.
Under the UAE’s cyber-crime laws, a person can be jailed or fined for making defamatory statements on social media. Her case eventually was settled with a fine.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of understanding the laws and culture of countries you intend to visit. In some countries, those swimsuit selfies you posted several years ago might be deemed pornographic. In others, anti-depressants, painkillers, and even over-the-counter cough syrups are banned or have specific rules around them that could cause you problems.
In Singapore, chewing gum is illegal, except for medical use.
Even harder to anticipate, that portable safe you carry your valuables in – cleverly disguised as an iced tea can – might be lined with plaster that could be mistaken by airport security for cocaine when some of it breaks and leaks out into your luggage.
That’s what happened to North Carolina businesswoman Amanda LaRoque on the island of Roatan, Honduras in 2017. LaRoque spent 10 days in a jail cell known as “the cage” – provided only with water and whatever food or other luxuries gracious locals might bring her – before being released.
No insurance coverage, but…
There is no insurance product that will pay your legal bills if you run afoul of the law in a foreign jurisdiction. However, some travel insurers engage “assistance companies” that will refer insurers’ clients to emergency legal service providers.
Richard Atkins, a principal and legal counsel for Philadelphia-based International Recoveries LLC, is one such provider. For more than 30 years, he has operated an international 24/7 legal hotline.
“We do it for the travel insurance industry, to make sure foreign travel is safer from a legal perspective,” Atkins said in an interview. “We also do it for insurers that cover expats and business travelers, as well as for study-abroad programs.”
Atkins typically works through retainers with assistance companies and sometimes directly with insurers or their in-house assistance providers. The service involves an initial consultation with a lawyer with international experience. Sometimes, Atkins said, the matter can be handled and solved just through that call. Other times that consultation also involves a conference or individual call with or selected network lawyer in the foreign county, and many times that solves the legal problem.
“Where the consultations don’t solve the problem, we make a referral to a colleague in the foreign country,” Atkins said. “That initial call is covered, so for all of this, there is no charge to the caller. In other cases, where the individual or family have no funds to expend for a lawyer, we help obtain the services of free counsel – either court appointed or the public defender.”
Navigating legal proceedings in foreign countries is as much a matter of understanding the culture as the law. A simple matter could easily be exacerbated by missteps in etiquette or failure to demonstrate sufficient remorse or deference. Atkins described a case in which a traveler was facing incarceration for having torn up a wad of the local currency – a serious offense in Thailand.
“We were able to show that the defendant had received psychological treatment as a child for behavior that included tearing up his parents’ money,” Atkins said. “When the judge understood the man’s psychological history, he dismissed the case.”
Penny wise, pound foolish
As I’ve written previously, too few international travelers buy travel insurance – and those who do tend to purchase trip cancellation/interruption coverage only, foregoing medical/medical evacuation coverage. A report by the U.S. Travel Insurance Association (USTIA) found that cancellation/interruption coverage accounted for nearly 90 percent of benefits purchased, while medical and medical evacuation benefits accounted for just over 6 percent.
Remember Peter Clark? The headlines about him focus on the cannabis angle, but his troubles began with an unexpected hospitalization. You’re just as likely to become ill or injured abroad as you are at home – maybe more so, due to lack of familiarity with terrain and customs and sensitivity to food and climate. Why would you venture forth without providing yourself with coverage analogous to what you have in your home country?
And while you’re less likely to be arrested than to get sick or injured, the consequences of legal trouble in a foreign country can be extreme. If you’re planning to travel abroad, buy the medical coverage and ask about emergency legal assistance.