IT was a Tuesday afternoon in Wallsend, and patrons of the Racecourse Hotel were struggling to absorb the news that one of their number, Renae Lawrence, was under arrest in Bali after police had allegedly found more than two kilograms of heroin strapped to her body.
She’d been caught three days earlier, on Sunday, April 17, 2005.
The Bali Nine story was big news then, and it’s even bigger news now with confirmation on Wednesday morning that two of the nine, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, have been executed on the Indonesian island of Nusa Kambangan.
Sympathy for Lawrence and her fellow smugglers was pretty thin on the ground in Wallsend and surrounds those first few days after their arrests, especially as Schapelle Corby had been arrested flying into Bali just six months before with 4.2 kilograms of cannabis stuffed into her boogie board bag.
But as more details of the case trickled out, it became increasingly apparent that most of the people arrested were simply mules for a larger and more sophisticated smuggling operation.
And within days, it was revealed that the Australian Federal Police had been tipped off about the gang and its activities, and that they had allowed the Indonesians to make the arrest, knowing the death penalty was the potential – and we now know, eventual – punishment for at least some of those involved.
More than one commentator has described the AFP as having blood on its hands over the executions of Chan and Sukumaran, and the absence of the death penalty in Australia means the Bali Nine would never have faced such sanction on these shores.
Now, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop having recalled the Australian ambassador from Jakarta, Indonesia’s determination to keep on executing narcotics smugglers could well trigger a cooling in diplomatic relations, at least for the short term.
Over time, the deaths of these two Australian drug traffickers are likely to fade into history to become footnotes to the long and largely unsuccessful war against drugs that governments of all persuasions have kept in their campaign kitbags.
But to what ends?
Heroin comes from the opium poppy – Papaver somniferum – which has been cultivated since Neolithic times, some 7000 or more years ago. Cannabis use can be traced back at least 5000 years.
Despite the lightning pace of human progress across the 20th and 21st centuries, drug use of all descriptions appears as endemic and entrenched as it’s always been, and the most that law enforcement agencies can do as they prosecute their battle is to put a finger in the dyke, here and there, or to dry up the supply of one drug, only to see ballooning production of a replacement.
In that regard, there’s a case to be made that the late 1990s crackdowns on the marijuana trade in Australia opened a new doorway for heroin, which became suddenly cheaper in the absence of pot, while heroin, in turn, all but disappeared from suburban streets to be replaced by an arguably more insidious and product in the form of the long-acting amphetamine, ice.
Now I am not arguing in favour of drugs.
For most people, the long-term costs will eventually outweigh whatever short-term benefits the user receives from the drug experience. But by treating drug use, primarily, as a criminal matter, we are surely destined to repeat the same problems over and over, generation after generation.
Governments around the world could end the drug crime problem overnight, by taking control of the means of drug production, and supplying those who wish to take drugs with a regular, affordable supply of their poison of choice.
Even a conservative estimate of the global illegal drug trade puts its value at more than $300 billion a year. Imagine that much money – and probably a lot more – staying in the licit economy. Imagine the reductions in violence, in robbery, in accidental overdoses.
But imagine, also, a whole lot more people taking a whole lot more drugs, at least in the short term. And it’s this bit of the equation that stops me from saying “legalise the lot”.