COVER STORY: Schapelle Corby and Australia's drugs problem
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, June 4, 2005
The celebrated Corby trial has distracted attention away from a growing illicit drugs crisis closer to home.
The Schapelle Corby drug trial aroused massive interest in Australia, with some Australians visiting Bali to hear the verdict, and a direct telecast of proceedings back to Australia.
Widespread sympathy for Miss Corby in Australia arises in part from the fact that she seems an unlikely drug courier, and that marijuana is cheaper in Bali than in Australia, so it makes little sense for her to carry it to Indonesia, in light of the fact that drug-traffickers in Indonesia face long prison sentences on conviction, and may face the death sentence.
She constantly maintained her innocence, suggesting that the drugs were planted in her luggage. This claim was supported by evidence that baggage-handlers at Sydney Airport have been involved in both luggage-tampering and drug importation.
On the other hand, all that the Indonesian prosecution had to show was that Miss Corby imported the drugs, and of this, there is no doubt.
To escape conviction, Schapelle Corby's lawyers had to prove that she was an innocent victim of drug-traffickers.
Despite the evidence given by an Australian remand prisoner - that he overheard a conversation within the prison between two men that one of them planted the marijuana in Corby's boogie board bag in Brisbane with the intent of having another person remove it in Sydney - there was no independent corroboration, and the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, appeared to contradict the claim.
(The Australian Federal Police have worked closely with Indonesian authorities in the seizure of nine Australians, recently arrested in Bali intending to import heroin into Australia, and previously, helped Indonesian police in relation to the Bali nightclub bombing in 2002 and the Australian Embassy bombing in 2004.)
Miss Corby's case was not helped by the fact that her half-brother is currently in prison on drug-related offences, and her father has also admitted to a conviction for possessing marijuana many years ago.
Nor was it helped by the fact that one of her backers, Ron Bashir, publicly accused the prosecution team of seeking a bribe to reduce the requested sentence, a claim he was forced to publicly repudiate; nor that Bashir alleged that he was funding her defence, when in fact, her Bali defence lawyers have been provided free of charge by the Bali Law Chambers (The Australian, May 24, 2005).
The Corby case has distracted attention from the fact that Australia faces a growing domestic drug problem, linked with "hard" drugs like heroin, and a range of other drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, ice and ecstasy.
The Federal Police and Australian Customs are fighting a losing battle to stem the tide of illicit drug imports, because there is no effective national strategy to prevent drug use inside Australia.
In 2003, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs issued a report, Road to Recovery, which examined substance abuse in the Australian community.
It estimated that illicit drug use cost the community directly over $6 billion in 1999, and that 17 per cent of the population took illicit drugs in 2002. The indirect costs - in family trauma, avoidable health problems and psychiatric disorders - are almost incalculable.
The central weakness of current drug strategies is that they are explicitly based on the theory of so-called "harm minimisation" - that is, that the community should accept drug abuse, and not strive for the objective of weaning users off drugs. It is ironic that, while every effort is being made to curb the use of tobacco and alcohol, illicit drug use is still widely tolerated.
It is under the mantra of harm minimisation that several states permit marijuana cultivation and possession "for personal use"; that New South Wales specifically permits the operation of a heroin-injecting facility at Kings Cross, Sydney; and that all states permit the use of methadone as a heroin-substitute and tolerate the widespread use of party drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines.
As a result, among young people aged below 30, about a third of the population had used illicit drugs over the previous 12 months.
The parliamentary inquiry specifically recommended against such a strategy, but "harm minimisation" remains the effective policy of both state and federal governments, despite Canberra's tough-on-drugs rhetoric.
To deal with this problem, Australia needs to follow the example of Sweden, a country which once tolerated drug experimentation, but has a policy of diverting all users into drug rehabilitation. Compared to Australia's 17 per cent, Sweden has succeeded in reducing the proportion of its population that has used illicit drugs to as low as four per cent.
The Federal Government should establish a Royal Commission, building on the work of the parliamentary inquiry, to bring forward policies to address the drug crisis, before it is too late.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council