Alex Wodak. Prohibition and its discontents: who really killed Chan and Sukumaran?

The fall out from Indonesia’s execution of Chan and Sukumaran for drug trafficking continues. In their unprecedented press conference on 3 May, the leaders of the Australian Federal Police argued that under existing laws and guidelines, they were obliged to share intelligence with their Indonesian counterparts. Moreover, under similar conditions in future, the AFP expects that similar decisions will be made. The basic problems are that many young Australians travel to countries that still retain the death penalty for drug trafficking (and some other offences) and prohibition is still the global drug policy. So the execution of Australians and citizens of other nationalities for drug trafficking in future are inevitable.

As so often happens with tragedies, the search is now on for someone or some organization to blame. The problem is that everyone is responsible while no one is also responsible: this is in reality a system problem.

The members of the firing squad weren’t really responsible as they were just carrying out orders. The Indonesian police and court officials weren’t really responsible as they were merely implementing laws that their parliament had passed. President Widodo wasn’t really responsible as he was, like any good democratic leader, merely responding to overwhelming popular opinion in his country. Howard and Rudd weren’t responsible either because in their earlier support for the execution of the Bali bombers they reflected overwhelming popular opinion in their country at the time. Abbott and Bishop weren’t responsible as they inherited this mess from their predecessors. And Chan and Sukumaran weren’t really responsible because they were merely pawns of higher-level criminals who managed to evade detection. The seven mules weren’t responsible either because Chan and Sukumaran had coerced them. As is so often the case in drug trafficking cases, the fall guys who got caught and paid the ultimate price came from poor minority families.

Compounding the tragedy is the ineffectiveness of drug prohibition, now acknowledged with increasing frequency. More than half a dozen retired and now even serving Australian Police Commissioners have conceded that drug law enforcement has minimal impact on the drug market. A year ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted that the war on drugs is a war we cannot win but nevertheless argued that it is a war we should keep fighting. In June 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy, consisting of more than twenty retired world leaders, released a report documenting the failure of drug prohibition and called for a consideration of options. In the last four years, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has recruited more world leaders and issued more reports. Some countries are now starting to reform their drug policy. In April 2016 in New York, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session will consider the growing crisis in global drug policy.

The seizure of 390 kg of heroin off the coast of Part Macquarie in 1998 did not affect the price or purity of heroin in Australia. Chan and Sukumaran were executed for their role in the attempted trafficking of 8 kg of heroin. What these executions may have done for a time is increase the perception of risk for drug traffickers. That might then get translated into higher prices and greater profits which might in turn convince some wavering wannabe drug trafficker to try their luck. Whatever else drugs might be, they are also a market with buyers and sellers agreeing on a price for a quantity of a commodity. But unlike most markets, drugs are bought and sold in a pyramid market where buyers are also sellers.

If drug prohibition was to ever be effective anywhere it should be in prisons. Yet drugs are available in most prisons. A few years ago on an international assignment I asked a prisoner in an Indonesian drug prison near Jakarta whether inmates could still obtain drugs. ‘Yes’ he replied, ‘but they are usually more expensive than in the community though sometimes drugs are less expensive inside than outside prisons’.

So why do we keep fighting a war on drugs when an increasing number of prominent members of the community accept that this is futile?

Professor Craig Reinarman, a US academic concluded that ‘drugs are richly functional scapegoats. They provide elites with fig leaves to place over unsightly social ills that are endemic to the social system over which they preside. And they provide the public with a restricted aperture of attribution in which only a chemical bogeyman or the lone deviants who ingest it are seen as the cause of a cornucopia of complex problems.’

We continue to fight a war on drugs for several reasons. Drug wars are still useful politically. Many politicians still think the transitional costs of changing drug policy are too high. But there are now supporters of drug law reform among politicians of virtually all parties. Law enforcement aimed to reduce the supply of drugs employs many people. The costs of continuing the current failed policy are increasing while the costs of changing policy are declining as more countries move out from the crumbling straightjacket of international drug control.

Australians who wish to avoid more tragedies like Chan and Sukumaran should support drug law reform and the universal abolition of the death penalty.

Dr. Alex Wodak AM, President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Director, Australia21

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Dr Alex Wodak, AM, is a physician and has been a Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, President of the Australia Drug Law Reform Foundation, Board Member of Australia21 & the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association.

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