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Mon 17 Mar 2008 03:37 PM

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A lack of substance

The UAE's hardline approach to travelling with banned substances is creating headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The United Arab Emirates has a reputation for extremes in the international community. Unfortunately, its unswerving approach to travelling with banned substances is creating headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Just last week, Cat Le-Huy, a German national and head of technology at the television production company Endemol, was released from the central prison at Al-Wathba, according to UK newspaper The Times.

Custom officials were said to have found melatonin pills, which can be taken to combat jet lag, and what was thought to be a speck of hashish. Le-Huy was detained for six weeks - others haven't been so lucky.

No-one is questioning the UAE's right to enforce its own laws, but its zero-tolerance policy to banned substances has become hot gossip among international media.

The recent high-profile incarceration of the UK's Radio 1 DJ Raymond Bingham, known to fans as Grooverider, for possession of cannabis (with a street value of US$20) and pornography became international news within hours of his arrest.

Journalists highlighted that many of the compounds on the Ministry of Health's list of banned substances are used in numerous remedies, which unsuspecting tourists are likely to consider completely legal in the UAE. Possession of over-the-counter children's medicine without a prescription, for example, could leave you looking at four years' hard time.

Big brand culprits include dextromethorphan, which can be found in Benylin children's coughs and colds formula and Tixylix children's cough syrup. Other blacklisted products include popular antidiarrhoea treatment Lomotil and cough treatments Coldex and Robitussin.

The irony is that the UAE is actually fighting a significant - and some might add, more legitimate - war on drugs every day. In September of last year, the World Health Organisation declared the UAE has become a hub for counterfeit medicines, with fake drugs accounting for 30% of all goods seized at its ports.

According to WHO representative Omar Tomey, "One percent of counterfeit medicine discovered in the European Union comes from the UAE," prompting the question of whether the cash and court time spent on prosecuting for minor offences such as cough medicine could be better spent targeting the bigger players.

The best way of building a tough-on-drugs reputation is to continue to crack down on counterfeit medicines, which pose serious medical risks worldwide. But if officials insist on rigorously prosecuting cough syrup and specks of cannabis, the UAE will do its international reputation far more harm than good.

If the UAE wants to become a hub for tourism, rather than counterfeit medicines, it needs to consider how its drug policies are viewed by the outside world.

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