Drug Laws and Penalties in Central America

Police officers on their motorbike.
Getty Images/Lonely Planet/Paul Kennedy

Recreational drug consumption in Central America is relatively low, but Central America and Mexico represent the primary pathway for smuggling drugs into the United States, especially cocaine. As a result of the drug trade, Latin America and the Caribbean have the world's highest crime rate.

However, Central American countries take drug possession and consumption seriously. Drugs are illegal throughout Central America, and travelers are all subject to local drug laws and penalties, which are often tremendously severe (as in years in an overcrowded, rundown prison severe).​

Drug Laws and Penalties in Costa Rica

Other than alcohol and tobacco, recreational drugs are illegal in Costa Rica, and drug trafficking is an increasing problem in the country. However, while cannabis is illegal, police officers in Costa Rica generally don't detain people carrying small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption; the beach cities tend to be the most laid-back about it. Still, use by locals isn't very widespread: the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the annual rate of pot smoking among people in Costa Rica between the ages of 12 and 70 at one percent (in comparison, usage in the United States is at 13.7%).

Drug Laws and Penalties in Guatemala

Drug trafficking is a massive problem in Guatemala, which borders Mexico to the north. Penalties for drug trafficking in Guatemala are severe and range from 10 to 20 years in the country's overcrowded, violent prisons; penalties for simple drug use range from 8 to 15 years. While the UNODC puts the annual rate of marijuana use among people in Guatemala at 4.8%, which is moderate, the risk is hardly worth it.

Drug Laws and Penalties in Belize

Belize has the highest rate of marijuana use in Central America; the UNODC puts the annual rate of use among people in Belize at 8.5%. In many tourist-heavy locations in the country, the attitude toward marijuana consumption is laid-back, even part of the local culture. However, it's still illegal, and possession can result in heavy fines or imprisonment. For harder drugs of possession of larger amounts, the penalties can be very severe.

Drug Laws and Penalties in Honduras

Drug trafficking, especially cocaine, is a huge problem in Honduras and responsible for the country's extremely high crime and murder rate. Drug use within Honduras is very low -- the UNODC puts the annual rate of pot smoking among people in Honduras at 0.8 percent, for example. Convicted drug offenders in Honduras can expect lengthy jail sentences and heavy fines.

Drug Laws and Penalties in Panama

If you're smart, you'll avoid drugs at all costs in Panama. Because Panama borders Colombia, it's a major thruway for drug trafficking, and the country takes drug possession and consumption extremely seriously. Though Panama's marijuana usage is moderate -- the UNODC puts the annual rate of pot smoking among people in Panama at 3.6% -- it's illegal, and possession of even ​a small amount of drugs is punishable by a minimum of a year in prison. According to​ travel guide Moon, drug dealers sometimes set up gullible tourists for a drug bust, in hopes of sharing a bribe with a corrupt police officer.

Drug Laws and Penalties in Nicaragua

Located right in the middle of Central America, Nicaragua is also in the middle of the drug smuggling route between South America and the United States. While marijuana use is moderate in Nicaragua, it's illegal, and getting caught with even a small amount can result in heavy fines and jail sentences -- of up to 30 years.

Drug Laws and Penalties in El Salvador

Though El Salvador is tiny, all land shipments of illegal drugs from South America have to pass through El Salvador or Honduras on their way to Mexico. As a result, El Salvador has huge problems with drug-related crime and violence. Penalties for drug use and possession in El Salvador are high.

In closing, it should be noted that you don't need to be fearful of the drug dealers of the region. Essentially, they are taking care of their business and won't bother you unless you stop them from doing their thing -- 99% of the time, travelers aren't affected.

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