Poppy field

Global drug policies, the death penalty and the Australian Federal Police

Poppy fieldThis week a perfect storm was created by the collision of a flawed global approach to illicit drugs, the vexed issue of the death penalty, the questionable actions of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the execution of two, arguably, naïve and hapless Australian drug smugglers.

The global approach to illicit drugs

The absolute prohibition of so-called illicit drugs on a global scale has been an unmitigated failure.

Drugs are everywhere.

Organised crime is estimated to be turning around over US$300 billion a year in drug trade, around 1% of the world’s GDP. Based on 2010 data, Australians reportedly spend an estimated $7 billion per year on illicit drugs.

Prisons in Western countries are loaded with drug offenders. For example, in 2015, in the US alone, a whopping 48.7% of the prison population is incarcerated for drug offences.

In Australia that percentage is lower, sitting at 12%, but that number still means one out of ten people in Australian jails are locked up for illicit drug offences. Although there has been a drop since the late 1990s, cannabis still appears to account for the majority of drug arrests in Australia.

With $2.6 billion spent on prisons in 2007/08, which would have increased over the past few years, over $250 million is spent each year incarcerating drug offenders. On top of that, the Australian government is estimated to spend over $1 billion per year on enforcing drug laws, $361 million on treatment and a mere $36 million on harm reduction.

Trying to restrict supply while there is a significant demand, and billions of dollars to be made, flies in the face of the most basic economic, cultural and social theories. It is often said that doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. That old adage certainly seems apt when it comes to current drug policies.

Drug users seem to fall into two large general categories:

  • people who are socially and economically disadvantaged (often also suffering from mental illness, which may even be undiagnosed and untreated), who usually find escape in ‘hard drugs’ (such as heroin, ice, etc.); and
  • young people, and some not-so-young people, even highly paid professionals, who use so-called ‘party drugs’ (such as ecstasy, speed, cocaine, etc.) as an ‘enhancer’ at parties and other social occasions, or cannabis to relax, who tend to reject the idea that their conduct should be considered criminal.

You won’t be getting a prize for guessing which of the users above are more likely to be incarcerated on drug offences.

Of course the above is an overgeneralisation of drug users, but it’s intended only to highlight the broad underlying, social, economical and cultural forces that tend to be completely ignored by policy makers.

The experts agree our current policies are fatally flawed. There is a large number of leading experts who have come forward in recent years and recommended significant changes in respect of how we handle drugs culturally, socially, and legally. Most experts suggest our drugs policy should not be a ‘war’ waged by law enforcement, but the subject of health and education programs.

When read altogether, the above are clear signs of the miserable and utter failure of existing drug policies at both the global and national levels. However, governments and law enforcement agencies don’t see it that way, and generally oppose substantive reforms.

The death penalty

When you add the death penalty to a flawed, warlike anti-drugs enforcement culture, the results can only be horrific, and inhumane.

I empathise with the argument that the drugs smuggled cause untold harm to a large number of people, destroy families and decimate communities. However, there appears to be a fundamental failure by governments in examining and understanding the demand side of the drug trade: why do people use drugs, what type of drugs do they use, and in what context do they engage in this illicit behaviour, and why?

The death penalty does not rehabilitate and it has been shown not to deter. It is a final, irreversible and inherently violent punishment for conduct considered repugnant by a particular society.

Indonesia is not the only country with the death penalty. Many other countries execute various offenders, from the United States to Iran. We cannot and should not condemn the death penalty in Indonesia alone, unless we also condemn it in every other nation that applies it.

The application of the death penalty, being a final, irreversible punishment for a crime, but failing to act as a deterrent to others, raises the question whether there are any circumstances and crimes where it’s appropriate to conclude the rehabilitation of an offender is ‘impossible’, and the relevant act is so heinous it can justify a punishment that’s utterly conclusive, and ends the offender’s life.

Some consider murder and rape, including paedophilia, crimes that satisfy their threshold. Some nations today include drugs, adultery, homosexuality, apostasy and blasphemy in the list of offences that justifies execution. The line between morality and law can be a thin one, and drawing it is a perilous journey for lawmakers and society.

There is also the additional difficulty regarding the standard and quality of proof for crimes that attract the death penalty, and the integrity of the law enforcement and judicial system of the country that applies it.

For example, even the United States, which is considered a leading democracy with a competent and independent judiciary, has produced many harrowing examples of death-row inmates being freed after the evidence against them, that led to their conviction and death sentence, crumbled under closer examination. Others were not so lucky, and were executed before their innocence came to light.

In other nations, the judicial system is merely an extension of the executive government, or the ruling theocracy. Convictions, and subsequent punishments, in such nations often fail to have any connection to ‘justice’ as most of us would understand the concept, and that’s particularly troubling when the death penalty is applied.

The Australian Federal Police

The case of the Bali 9 also raises some very serious issues about the conduct of the AFP.

The AFP knew the actions of this group of people could attract the death penalty in Indonesia. The AFP could have waited until they re-entered Australia and arrested them at that point, dealing with them under Australian law. Instead they alerted the Indonesian authorities, leading to their arrest in Bali, and this week’s executions.

The AFP is about to be called before a parliamentary committee to explain its role in delivering the Bali 9, including the two executed men, to the Indonesian authorities a decade ago. They do have a lot of explaining to do over what appears to be, at a minimum, negligence or incompetence on their part.

The Federal Government’s recent decision to issue a new Ministerial Direction to the AFP, which quietly scrapped a previous instruction requiring the agency to take Australia’s opposition to the death penalty into account when co-operating with overseas law enforcement agencies is also concerning and needs review.

These new directions make the Government’s recent protestations over their horror at Australians being subjected to the death penalty overseas somewhat hollow, although they insist the AFP continues to operate under strict guidelines about what information they may share with international agencies in potential death penalty cases.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran

Yes, Andrew and Myuran did something illegal, and particularly stupid. They tried to smuggle drugs from a country that imposes the death penalty for serious drug offences and has a notoriously corrupt system of law enforcement and judiciary. A very naïve double whammy in anyone’s book.

But did they deserve to die for what they have done? If they were arrested and charged in Australia, they would not just still be alive, but they would likely be finishing up their prison sentences, and returning to their families, hopefully rehabilitated.

Poignantly, after 10 years in a Bali prison, prior to their execution, Andrew and Myuran appeared to be the perfect examples of successful rehabilitation, but now we will never know what may have happened if they lived.

Australians appear to be split on the issue. Many campaigned tirelessly to save their lives, right up until the last possible moment.

Others think they were the agents of their own demise through their criminal actions.

It certainly appears that, at least so far, these very unfortunate events did not reduce the demand for cheap holidays in Bali, although the calls for a boycott seem to be getting louder.

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