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Death for drugs?

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 16 February 2015

The approaching death of two Australians in Indonesia for heroin smuggling has produced an extraordinary outburst of public and governmental protest, and has forced me to consider what the 'right thing' is in this case. Chan and Sukumaran are not unusual. Three Australians were executed in Malaysia, and one in Singapore, for drug smuggling, and a fifth languishes in Vietnam awaiting execution for the same offence.

Why has the fate of these two of the Bali Nine caused such attention? A number of factors come to mind. They are said to have reformed, after ten years in jail. They are seen, on practically every news bulletin, at work, or at least alive and well in their prison. They are young men. Their fate is a firing squad. We will all die, in due course, but we don't know when, and that uncertainty allows us to get on with our lives. When you know you are going to be shot, and your family and friends know as well, that is a highly unusual and distressing situation for all of them.

Then the fates of the Nine are different. Schapelle Corby has been released. One of the others was sentenced to life imprisonment, then was sentenced to death, then had that sentence reversed to life imprisonment upon appeal. The others all endure differing periods of imprisonment. Why the differences? Corby was said to be a 'mule', someone who carried drugs, either innocently or knowingly, for others. Sukumaran and Chan were the ringleaders, and that does not seem to be at issue.


Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam all have tough anti-drug laws, with death the standard penalty for conviction. Australia also has tough anti-drug laws, but we no longer have sentences of death for any offence. Indeed, the death penalty was last exercised in 1967, and formally abolished by the Commonwealth in 2010; fewer than one in three Australians support the death penalty for murder, according to the Roy Morgan polling group, and the proportion has been declining for a long time. Moreover, neither the Commonwealth, nor any State or Territory, will extradite a foreign national if the person might be executed for the alleged offence.

It is that practice that has caused questions about the AFP's having tipped off the Indonesian authorities about the Nine, rather than having awaited the return of the drug smugglers to Australia. Apparently the AFP will discuss this issue after the coming execution of Sukumaran and Chan.

I find it hard to establish a firm personal position on this case. I am opposed to the use of the death penalty for variety of reasons, one of them being that the judicial system can always be wrong. But I am also opposed to the criminalisation of drugs of all kinds, on the ground that this leads, all too easily, to the corruption of the police force, if only because the financial stakes are so high.

I also take the view that drug use need not involve other persons, and even in the worst cases represents a 'crime' only against oneself. I accept that it is virtually impossible to go back to the 19th century, when cocaine and heroin were legally available, in part because they were seen as remedies for ailments. But I take the view that if heroin, for example, were available on a doctor's prescription for addicts, its use would fall right away, as would the frequency of the crime for which Sukumaran and Chan have been sentenced to death.

None of this is easy. I would not sign a petition for clemency in their case, because they were found guilty in a properly constituted court in another country. They knew what they were doing, and they knew what the consequences were likely to be. Moreover, what they were doing, had they been successful, would have caused a great deal of unhappiness, and almost certainly death, to people in Australia.

Whenever so-called 'hard drugs' come up for discussion I am reminded of a story told to me many years ago by a colleague in the social sciences. He discovered that one of his acquaintances was a heroin user, though he would not have been able to guess that from any behaviour. That man, scornful of the bad reputation that heroin had, suggested that my colleague study the group of recreational heroin-users that he belonged to, all of them professionals of one kind or another. With some misgivings, my friend did so. Within a few years all of the group had died.


What can any society do with practices or substances that can do great harm to individuals? It can outlaw them, as the USA did with alcohol after the First World War. It can also try to educate, and to provide remedies for those who become addicted, as in Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. It can accept that some practices are less than desirable, like prostitution, but endeavour to regulate them. We do all of these things

At the heart of this issue is the problem that we are human, and that our society is based on humans and their strengths and weaknesses too. Too often we ask the society to do things for us that we feel unable to do ourselves, like preventing our children from taking up bad habits. That seems a job for parents, in my judgment. Ultimately we all have to learn and grow up, and growing up is hard. Some reach advanced age without having really done so.

To my mind, the drug problem cannot be easily solved. We are part of the world, and the USA, in particular, takes a dim view of any society that does not see 'drugs' as seriously as it does. Our police forces are connected to other police forces in an attempt to end the smuggling and selling of illicit drugs. They're illicit because our legislatures have said they are. New drugs appear from time to time and are proscribed too. Why do young people want to take them? Because they're curious. Very few become addicted, but these are the ones that make the headlines when they die, or kill someone for money to feed their habit.

Current usage in Australia? Cannabis about 10 per cent, cocaine about 2 per cent, ecstasy about 2.5 per cent, heroin about 0.1 per cent. Some 40 per cent of Australians have tried cannabis. I'm one of them. It was more than forty years ago, and I had no wish to repeat the experiment. It would never have occurred to me to try heroin or cocaine. We as a society have created 'the drugs problem', by making such a fuss about drugs.

I am sorry for Sukumaran and Chan. They gambled and lost. I doubt that their execution will deter others from thinking that they will succeed in smuggling drugs into our country.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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