Drugs, Death, and Defendants

Much has been made of the looming executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two Bali Nine members and Australian citizens whose numbers appear to be up any day now. In our fury at the barbarism of the Indonesian judicial machine, our country has engaged in rhetorical debate as to the merits of the death penalty. The position is now so universal that the full political spectrum of Australia was bobbleheading along as Alan Jones was brought to tears over the issue during Monday’s edition of Q&A.

This unanimity has led to a heightened frustration that headway cannot be made with Indonesia. Instead we inevitably turn to what our Government’s trump-card options are; do we cut foreign aid? Do we impose trade sanctions? Do we leverage our decade old Boxing Day Tsunami Appeal as a type of guilt-trip? These are all, of course, nonsense.

The answer is right under our powder filled noses. If we want to talk the talk as a progressive nation, it’s time our legs caught up to our whinging mouths.

Take into account that these 19 year olds were more than likely petty suppliers more interested in procuring a party substance, while the Bali Nine were transporting 8.3kgs of heroin with a street value $4 million.

This disconnect is summed up in Tuesday’s announcement that the close friend of 19 year old Georgia Bartter, who died in the most unusual of circumstances in November at Sydney’s Harbourlife festival. Rebecca Hannibal has been arrested and charged for supplying the ecstasy pills that had the fatal effect on Bartter’s body (Bartter didn’t die from an overdose; she suffered an ‘acute, aggressive, irreversible allergic reaction’ to the drugs). Young man, Matthew Forti has also been arrested for initially selling the pills to Hannibal.

And there we have it, two 19 year olds before judge and jury because of an impossibly random biological reaction, reported at Bartter’s funeral to be 1 in 10 million. Judge and jury will sense the injustice, but their jobs are not to moralise; their job is to carry out law. The discussion about values is for our elected representatives and for us citizens – which is where you come in.

Take into account now that ecstasy is quite demonstrably less dangerous than the heroin the Bali Nine were transporting. Take into account that these 19 year olds were more than likely petty suppliers more interested in procuring a party substance, while the Bali Nine were transporting 8.3kgs of heroin with a street value $4 million.

Take into account that Professor David Nutt – lecturer at Oxford and Bristol University – has produced research finding that taking ecstasy is no more dangerous than the passé and unquestionably legal activity of horse-riding – a claim that he was dismissed from public service for uttering. Take into account that heroin use is a horribly prevalent issue in Indonesia, far more threatening to the society than a handful of ecstasy pills at festivals and dance-clubs.

If you are as upset as I am about the harshness of the penalties facing our countrymen in Bali, keep your anger for within these borders; the place where progressive leadership has not been shown and your opinions have a chance of mattering.  Our diplomats are caught trying to argue, that ‘drugs are pretty bad, but they’re not THAT bad’ – when we should be calling into question the laws that find drug sellers in handcuffs at all.

Regrettably, we live in a legal structure that actively seeks to make criminals of drug suppliers; we invite disproportion, hypocrisy and personal dishonesty. The reality is that we will know and be aware of regular drug takers, even drug dealers in our circle of friends. We ourselves may have a history of drug use that could range from intermittent to casual to regular.


The ‘War on Drugs’ does not work. We know this. We know it from prohibition in America. We know it from our presence at house parties. We know it from smelling the air in the suburbs for that pungent grassy smell on lazy afternoons.  Conventional global policy in this space is a Sisyphean challenge.

And besides, how else would nine Australians in their 20s have a chance at earning a million dollars each for transporting a kilo of anything if not for laws that inevitably make the drug trade obscenely lucrative?  If they had each carried the same weight in pure gold back in 2004 they would have only been carrying 1.5% of that value! Black market indeed.

Now for your reflection, when the three Bali Bombings perpetrators sentenced to death were shot by firing squad in 2008, there was no public outrage coming from Australia. There were no shouts of human rights. There were no shock jocks complaining of systemic barbarism – there were more than likely a few wry smiles.

This is because drug crimes are not genuine crimes; we quite clearly know what wickedness is and what it isn’t. The death penalty is actually less abhorrent to us all if it is in response to genuine and grave injustice.

The suppliers of substances that are voluntarily consumed do not belong in cells with rapists, murderers and pedophiles – one place they certainly don’t belong is in the gallows. They belong in shop fronts, running legitimate businesses and paying tax on their earnings.

If we are in search of a leg to stand on when arguing for mercy for drug traffickers in other societies, there is no better place to start than by having a meaningful conversation about them in our own.

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