Dubai has a very strict, zero-tolerance anti-drugs policy, as does the whole of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The problem is that the policy goes way, way beyond normal measures most other governments use to control illegal drugs. It actually puts regular, law-abiding folks at risk.
Consequently, it is recommended to leave all but absolutely essential medicines at home if you are going to or via Dubai, even as a transit passenger. In some cases the consequences are pretty severe, but many other people have been inconvenienced to the extent of being detained for some hours before being released. One might say “no harm done”, unless of course, it happens to you. A few hours of detention by customs officials is not at all pleasant anywhere in the world, but all the more so if people are shouting at you in a language that you do not understand.
The UAE uses highly sensitive equipment to search for the slightest trace of drugs.
Some of the horror stories
Some of the cases that have been reported by the BBC:
- Keith Brown: Four-year jail term for possession of 0.003g of cannabis, stuck to the bottom of his shoe
- Robert Dalton: On trial for alleged possession of 0.03g of cannabis
- An un-named 20-year-old: On trial for alleged possession of 0.02g of cannabis
- Tracy Wilkinson: Held in custody for eight weeks for possession of a painkiller containing codeine (prescribed for back pains) before release
- Swiss national: Four-year jail term after three poppy seeds found on his clothes
- Cat Le-Huy was arrested in Dubai for carrying Melatonin jet-lag tablets, which are sold over the counter in the US and Dubai.
Extent of the problem
Carrying more than 10 paracetamol tablets has been known to cause trouble at Dubai customs. (“Trouble” meaning being detained, strip searched and interrogated. It’s best avoided.) Even such traveller’s basics such as Lomotil are banned!
Catherine Wolthuizen, chief executive of Fair Trials International, said Dubai customs authorities were using highly sensitive new equipment to conduct thorough searches on travellers.
“So many people now travel to Dubai and, as we’re seeing, many have no idea what risks they’re taking or their vulnerability to this very strict approach,” she said. “If they find any amount – no matter how minute – it will be enough to attract a mandatory four-year prison sentence.
“What many travellers may not realise is that they can be deemed to be in possession of such banned substances if they can be detected in their urine or bloodstream, or even in tiny, trace amounts on their person.”
Strict Islamic principles
“Dubai’s culture is rooted in Islam, providing a strength and inspiration that touches all aspects of everyday life.” — Dubai Government web site.
Even international web sites promoting drugs banned in Dubai are blocked. The Ministry of health coordinates with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to block them.
So what sorts of drugs are banned? Dr. Amin Hussein Al Amiri, Assistant Undersecretary for Medical Practices and Licenses gives the official perspective that these are “especially weight loss, body building, hormones, sexual stimulants and other unapproved medicines”. In reality, any medication could cause you problems.
No official list available
No list of banned or restricted substances is available from UAE embassies, web sites or other official UAE sources! That makes compliance considerably harder and leads some to the conclusion that the intention is to catch people out rather than to keep the country drug-free.
Furthermore, in addition to a banned list, the Dubai customs authorities also reportedly are using an “approved” list. A particular medicine may not be on the banned list, but if it is not yet on the approved list then you will still be treated as a criminal suspect!
Take lots of documentation for life-sustaining medication
If you absolutely must take medication with you, because it keeps you alive, then ensure that you have as much documentation as possible. Not only should you have a prescription to cover each medicine, the doctor should explain in a letter what the purpose of each drug is. Get letters from specialists and hospitals. Have it authenticated by the local UAE embassy well ahead of your travel date.
In practice, it is not safe to take any medicines with you to Dubai. Passengers on aircraft diverted to Dubai, or in transit, who did not expect to pass through customs have been arrested and spent time in jail, even when in possession of valid prescriptions.
Fair Trials International list of banned or restricted substances
Fair Trials International has compiled an unofficial list of controlled medicines for Dubai and the UAE. This is based in part on the schedules to the UAE Federal law No. 14 of 1995, and the General Authority for Health Services Guide to the Management of Controlled Drugs in the Private Sector, March 2007
Banned outright. May not be imported into UAE. Possession of these drugs, with or without a prescription, may lead to a prison sentence. In addition to the medications listed below, this category includes cannabis, cocaine and opiates, from heroin to poppy seeds (the kind used in everyday baking).
Listed narcotics (active ingredients):
Alfentanil, Amphetamine, Buprenorphone, Codeine, Fentanyl, Ketamine, Methadone, Methyphenidate, Morphine, Pentazocine, Pethidine, Remifentanil, Sufentanil
Listed narcotics (some trade names):
Ketalar, Physeptone, Ritalin, Sosegon, Subutex, Ultiva
Class A Psychotropics
These are drugs for which a prescription must be held. The more verifying paperwork from the authorising doctor which can accompany any drug in this category, the better. In UAE, they can only be dispensed upon production of a registered (health authority-approved) prescription. They include some common sleeping tablets, painkillers, anti-depressants and hormone replacement therapy
Listed Class A Psychotropics (active ingredients):
Acitretin, Alprazolam, Aripiprazole, Bromazepam, Buprenorphine , Butorphanol, Chlopromazine, Chlordiazepoxide, Clobazam, Clonazepam, Clorazepate, Diazepam, Dihydrocodeine, Droperidol, Flumazenil, Flupentixol, Fluphenazine, Haloperidol, Isotretinoin, Lorazepam, Medazepam, Mephenoxalone, Midazolam, Misoprostol, Nalbuphine, Olanzapine, Phenobarbitone, Pimozide, Prazepam, Prochlorperazine, Propofol, Prostaglandin, Quetiapine, Risperidone, Sulpiride, Sultopride, Temazepam, Thiopentone, Tiapride, Tramadol, Trfluoperazine, Zaleplon, Ziprasidone, Zolpidem, Zuclopenhtixol
Listed Class A Psychotropics (some trade names):
Abilify, Anexate, Arthrotec, Ativan, Barnetil, Buccastem, Clopixol, Cytotec, Deanxit, Dehydrobenzperidol, Demetrin, DHC continues, Dialag, Diapam, Diprivan, Dogmatil, Dormicum, Dorsilon, Frisium, Gardinal, Genprid, Haldol, Intraval, Largactil, Lexotanil, Limbitrol, Neotigason, Nobrium, Noctran, Nubain, Orap, Prolixin, Propess, Risperdal, Rivotril, Serenace, Seroquel, Sonata, Stadol, Stelazine, Stemetil, Stesolid, Stilnox, Tekam, Temgesic, Tiapridal, Tramal, Tramundin, Tranxene, Valium, Xanax, Zaldiar, Zeldox, Zyprexa
Class B Controlled medicines
Possession of these drugs must be accompanied by a prescription. Many of these drugs are available over-the-counter in other countries (or even in Dubai!) and travellers to or through UAE should ensure they obtain a prescription before carrying any of these drugs to that country. They include many common cold and cough remedies.
Class B Controlled medicines (active ingredients):
Amitriptyline, Baclofen, Benzhexol, Biperiden, Buspirone, Carisoprodol, Citalopram, Clomipramine, Codeine, Cyclobenzaprine, Dextromethorphan, Diphenoxylate, Dotheipin, Duloxetine, Escitalopram, Estradiol, Ethinylestradiol, Etonogestrel, Fluoxetine, Flupenthixol, Fluvoxamine, Imapramine, Isotretonin, Lithium Carbonate, Maprotiline, Menotrophin, Meserolone, Methocarbomol, Mianserin, Milnacipran, Minaprine, Mirtazapine, Moclobemide, Naltrexone, Nandrolone, Nefazodone, Norethisterone, Norethisterone, Norgetrol, Noscapine, Octreotide, Oestradiol, Opipramol, Orphenadrine, Oseltamivir, Oxazepam, Paroxetine, Pholcodine, Pimecrolimus, Procyclidine, Propoxyphene (with paracetemol), Pyrisuccideanol, Reboxetine, Sertraline, Somatrophine, Testosterone, Ticlopidine, Tizanidine, Tretinoin, Trimipramine, Vecuronium, Venlafaxine
Class B Controlled medicines (some trade names):
123 Cold, Actifed Compound, Actifed DM, Activelle, Adol Cold, Adol Compound, Adumbran, Akineton, Algaphan, Anafranil, Andriol, Artane, Athymil, Aurorix, Benxtrone, Bepro, Broncholar, Broncholar forte, Bronchophane, Buspar, Cancolite, Cantor, Cipralex, Cipram, Climen, Codaphen, Codaphen plus, Codilar, Codipront, Codis, Coldex-dD, Cymbalta, Deca durabolin, Decutan, Dextrocuf, Dextrolag, Diarsed, Diaxine, Dicton, Distalgesic, Edronax, Efexor, Elidel, Estracomb, Estrofem, Faverin, Femoston, Flexiban, Flozak, Fluanxol, Flumed DM adult, Fluneurin, Fluoxone, Fluran, Flutin, Fluxetyl, Genotropin, Insidon, Intard, Ixel, Kafosed, Kemadrin, Kliogest, Lagaflex, Linz, Lioresal, Lomotil, Ludiomil, Menogen, Muscadol, Myogesic, Noracod, Norcuron, Norditropin, Norflex, Norgesic, Nuvaing, Oxetine, Paracodol, Phensedyl, Primotestone, Progyluton, Prothiaden, Proviron, Prozac, Remeron, Revacod, Rhinotussel, Riaphan, Roaccutane, Robaxin, Robaxisal, Robitussin-CF, Romilar, Saizen, Salipax, Sandostatin, Saroten, Sedofan DM, Sedofan-P, Seroxat, Serzone, Sirdalud, Somadryl compound, St Joseph cough, Sterandryl, Stivane, Surmontil, Sustanon, Tamiflu, Ticlid, Tixylix, Tofranil, Trexan, Tripofed dm, Trisequens, Tryptizol, Tuscalman, Tussifin with codeine, Unified DM, Vesanoid, Virormone, Zoloft
While every effort has been made to verify the contents of this list, where in doubt, we advise travellers to check their medication with the UAE consulate before travel.
Fair Trials International recommend on their web site that for further information you should contact: UAE Embassy Medical Department 71 Harley Street, LONDON, W1G 8DE Phone: 02074866281
Related: Other interesting and informative articles
Dubai sights: “A day in Dubai”, with an interesting way of seeing the city.
Similar drug information for Singapore: “Singapore risks: medicines, drugs, death sentences and tourism”.