Schapelle Corby and the war on drugs

by John Q on May 28, 2005

The big news in Australia has been the trial, in Indonesia, of Schapelle Corby, a 27-year old beauty student accused of smuggling marijuana into Bali[1]. In the middle of the trial, in which Corby vigorously asserted her innocence, nine young Australians were caught trying to smuggle heroin out, and now face the death penalty. Corby’s conviction and twenty year sentence has caused major problems in the often fraught relationship between Australia and Indonesia, which had improved in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

Like lots of others, I’m not too happy about the Corby case. But I think most of the complaints from Australia have been misdirected. The problem is not with the trial which, while not as procedurally tight as the Australian equivalent, seemed basically fair[2] to me. The real problem is with the sentence. The likely imposition of the death penalty on the Bali heroin smugglers is even worse.

The reason that attention hasn’t been focused on this issue is that, as a society, we’re fairly hypocritical about the war on drugs. At one level, we recognise that it’s essentially pointless and unwinnable, like most wars. So we’ve gradually backed away from lengthy prison sentences for bit players, and even abandoned the idea that the capture of a few “Mr Big Enoughs” would make any real difference. But it’s still convenient for us that our neighbours should have draconian laws, the burden of which falls mainly on their own citizens. It’s only when a sympathetic figure like Corby gets 20 years for an offence that might have drawn a good behavior bond in Australia, or when some stupid young people end up facing a firing squad that the contradictions are exposed.

fn1. This isn’t as unlikely as it might sound. There’s a big demand among European and Australian tourists in Bali for the type of marijuana in question, and buying from local suppliers is very risky.

fn2. That is, as fair as other drugs trials. The nature of the war on drugs is that normal legal principles have to be suspended if the law is going to be made to work at all. The routine use of procedures bordering on entrapment, and the effective reversal of the onus of proof, once possession is established, are examples of this, in Australia just as much as in Indonesia.



markus 05.28.05 at 8:58 am

it’s still convenient for us that our neighbours should have draconian laws, the burden of which falls mainly on their own citizens.
What benefit does Australia derive from the draconian laws of its neighbours? Are you thinking of harsh sentences keeping more dealers off the streets thereby reducing the influx of drugs into Australia? (This would seem plausible to me, but I don’t think it is actually the case. I’m not aware of any data pointing one way or the other.)
If there is no significant benefit to Australia from Indonesias harsh laws, I believe the charge of hypocrisy is a bit too strong. Both the respect for foreign law and the wish that ones own countrymen and -women be treated according to their native laws are noble impulses. Perhaps the protest simply recognises that “inform yourself of foreign laws before going abroad” is a nice idea, but hardly workable in practice, especially given the often widespread ignorance of the laws of the home country.
Anyway, please something more about the hypocrisy you see, I don’t quite get it yet.


Raimo 05.28.05 at 9:34 am

You’ve said it all, JQ.

But how do you get Corby back?


Horatio 05.28.05 at 9:38 am

Excellent post on this subject. The sentencing is indeed the heart of what’s wrong with Indonesia’s response. The length of the sentence seems even more outrageous when compared with the 2 1/2 year sentence for at least one of the Bali bombers.


Yusuf Smith 05.28.05 at 9:43 am

While I don’t approve of drug taking, I’ve long thought that the “war on drugs” isn’t worth the suffering it causes. I mean, 20 years is vastly too long – it’s only marijuana! Even if it was heroin, this sentence is not justified. This stuff should be confiscated when caught, and only repeat offenders should get jail terms.


Scott 05.28.05 at 10:11 am

You know the standards are different for the physically attractive. God help you if you disappear (or run away from an upcoming wedding) or face overblown criminal penalties if nobody wants you kept out of prison for your breeding potential.


bi 05.28.05 at 10:23 am

Scott: woohoo!

But why are we talking about drugs? Look, there are so many horrible things happening at Gitmo! :-)

Back to the topic, there’s something wrong when possession of drugs immediately results in a “guilty” verdict, yet when Bali was bombed, the Indonesian courts spend half their time trying to figure out whether Abu Bakar is in fact the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. But I won’t jump to any conclusions here.

Well, at least Corby didn’t get the death sentence, which means there’s still hope if she is indeed innocent…


Jimmy Doyle 05.28.05 at 10:31 am

I don’t understand why “it’s…convenient for us that our neighbours should have draconian [drug] laws.” Please explain?


Scott 05.28.05 at 10:39 am

It’s ‘convenient’ because _they_ have to live under threat to keep drugs away from _us_.


Jonathan Edelstein 05.28.05 at 11:33 am

Well, we are talking about the same country that imposes 10 and 15-year sentences on West Papuans who raise separatist flags, so maybe it isn’t only the drug sentences that are out of proportion.


Bill McEwen 05.28.05 at 1:02 pm

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Vietnam War veteran ever killed 100 plus Americans by blowing up a building on American soil . That means, to me at least , YOU better do all YOU can to help the guys, similar to MCVEIGH , when

they get back here from Afghanistan and Iraq and every other shitheap that the Commander-In-Pampers sends them to.

I am Bill McEwen . Beat me PLEASE or just hit me an e-mail

Thanks, Bill McEwen

Posted Memorial Day Weekend ‘ 05

Keep it alive in ‘ 05


cm 05.28.05 at 1:09 pm

yusuf: While there are obvious fundamental motivations behind anti-drug activities (keeping a lid on addiction and the social problems & crime coming out of it), it shows to a large extent a bureaucracy that has taken on a dynamic of its own in search of a mission, importance, and funding (enforcement agent and prison guard jobs to compensate for lack of employment opportunity in the private sector), as well as sociopolitical exploitation for defining an “enemy” and channeling attention, as well as showing how you are “doing something”. More often than not it ends as actionism and doctoring symptoms not causes.

And then there is the element of disciplining the younger generations and keeping them in line so that they can “perform” their assigned role, i.e. work for businesses.


Publius 05.28.05 at 1:32 pm

The whole world has gone mad.

That’s a very facile, overly-broad, and not very useful conclusion to draw from this, but I can’t seem to avoid it.

Things that grow naturally on this Earth… illegal. Does that not seem like insanity? How can anyone forbid a weed? Jeez, what if they ban crabgrass next week; I’d be screwed.

Every society has its taboos, and some are sillier than others, but this one seems particularly senseless to me.

As Frank Zappa said, “They are chemical compounds. They are only dangerous when you believe their use bestows upon you a temporary license to act like an asshole.”


david tiley 05.28.05 at 1:41 pm

“Convenient for us” in that some of our drugs (at least) come in through South East Asia, so draconian penalties interrupt the supply chain with spectacular effect. Insofar as deterrents work, these are doozies.


John C 05.28.05 at 2:17 pm

The Schapelle Show-
I read about this a week ago before this story got big, an editorial on It bemoaned that a white, pretty girl was getting attention while many are prosecuted without much recognition. Just a week before, a man in Singapore was hung for smuggling 3 pounds of pot. A few years back it took an American teen vandal getting the cane to look at their harsh laws. But I guess we’ve got to take what we can get.


Mary 05.28.05 at 4:40 pm

I read “convienient for us” in a completely different way to most of the commenters: it’s convienient for us not because it reduces the incoming flow of drugs but because of the symbolism — we let our neighbours do the nasty bits of the public “war on drugs”.


Roger Bigod 05.28.05 at 8:28 pm

I read the Sydney paper most days, because it’s better then most US papers, especially the NYT, and I have warm memories of Sydney. That said, I have zero sympathy for the Australian public, and some Schadenfreude in their distress. The basis for criminizing marijuana is public health under the common law police power. But cannabis poses no danger to public health. It’s a sumptuary law. The public has no problem with screwing up somebody’s life moderately, as long as they aren’t young, white and attractive. The Indonesians didn’t get the message and applied an excessive punishment. The effect on the victim is regrettable, and I would certainly prevent it if I could. But the effect on the public is deserved.


Danny Yee 05.28.05 at 10:46 pm

Indonesia’s laws and legal system clearly have some problems. But their application to Corby is only an incidental problem, and one that pales into comparison with the harm these problems do to 250+ million Indonesians.

How many of the people who are now abusing the Indonesian legal system are going to give money to the Indonesian NGOs fighting to improve it? That’s where the neo-colonialism lies — people will donate money to help one pretty Australian, but couldn’t care less about Indonesians.


Mill 05.29.05 at 2:42 am

_Both the respect for foreign law and the wish that ones own countrymen and -women be treated according to their native laws are noble impulses._

I agree with the first half of that, but not the second, and I don’t even think they’re compatible. If you don’t believe that [Foreign Country X]’s laws should apply to everyone within its borders (including your holidaying countrypeople), then by definition you don’t respect those laws.

“Your laws don’t apply to me! I’m from [Home Country]!” is one of the most obnoxious things a visitor to a foreign country can believe (or, god forbid, say).

Corby took a chance and it didn’t pay off. Tough. There are a lot of people, especially in SE Asia, worse off than her, and often through NO fault of their own.


markus 05.29.05 at 11:14 am

I fully agree they are not compatible. Nonetheless, I believe that the wish to see one’s countrymen and -women tried according to laws they are familiar with, which have been transmitted to them through their embodiment in the culture, which shape their learning environment and hence expectations and desires is noble in that it recognizes human limitations.
I notice this regularly when for instance discussing the follies of the past with people from northern Germany. There, the same laws concerning marihuana are handled much more leniently. Consequently, these people see no problem in discussing their past use of said substances in public places and normal voice. Unfortuantely, locally the standard is different and merely talking about the matter may get you unwanted police attention.
Now, I agree people have an obligation to learn about the laws of the places they’re travelling to, and ignorance is no excuse, but I believe that just as we factor in e.g. mental handicaps and age, we should also take into account foreigness when applying the law of the land.
As to the respect for foreign laws, that is again something I wouldn’t want to uphold without qualifications, e.g. in the case of Sharia law. And I believe, that to the extent that foreign laws are considered to be near universally unjust in my home country, my government should try to work out a deal with the foreign country to establish special regulations for me and my countrymen. To make up an (invented and subject to the charge of outlandish stipulation) example, I don’t believe I should end up in jail because a family member violated the local law, even if the country in questions has laws establishing collective/familial guilt.


Mill 05.29.05 at 6:56 pm

I think we disagree on terminology, Markus. When I say “respect foreign laws” I don’t mean “believe that those laws are just”, I just mean “understand and accept that those laws apply to everyone in that country, even visitors”.

There are certainly some legal systems that I find much less palatable than others (sharia is a good example), but my solution in those cases is _not to go to the country that has them_. Keep the pressure up internationally, sure, but if you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Frankly, I shudder to imagine a world in which well-off tourists and expats are exempt from local law. Didn’t we try colonialism once already?

In any case, speaking as a person who is not a citizen of the place where I live, I will fight tooth and nail to have “foreigners” placed in the same category as “too young to understand” or “mentally handicapped, unable to understand”. Any normal adult (including young adults) has both the ability and the responsibility to understand the norms of where they are.

And to bring it back to this particular case, you don’t need to memorise Indonesia’s entire legal code to know that walking through customs with a bag of dope will get you in deep trouble. That’s just common sense.


Mill 05.29.05 at 7:00 pm

Er, that is, “I will fight tooth and nail _not_ to have…”.

I can’t even use cliches properly.


AlanDownUnder 05.29.05 at 11:45 pm

“War” on terrorism – USA kills tens of thousands with friendly fire. “War” on drugs – USA twists Indonesia’s arm and Corby (and plenty of others) get a penalty that sends the right message.

No more phony “War” please. And no more “must respect {other nations]’s laws”. The USA didn’t respect Indonesia’s laws when it heavied Indonesia into increasing its penalties for drug offences.


Dan 05.30.05 at 8:40 am

The whole issue is a little ridiculous really. Essentially we have a very dim tourist being prosecuted overseas for an essentially pathetic crime.

The only reason this is an issue is because of the populist media here, (yes, I am an australian) who can’t seem to think past the typical xenophobic angle that stories from indonesia seem to spark here.

1. I do think that 20 years with the chance of death for marijuana possession is a mite excessive, especcially where someone found guilty of mass murder gets far less.

2. Point 1 is irrelevant to the case. Most Australians don’t seem to get this. (although, most Australians I talk to seem to. I don’t know who the media is preaching to) Any disgust we feel that Ms. Corby may or may not have got a fair trial should be kept to a personal level only. I don’t think the indonesian legal system is at all adequate. I’m man enough to admit that that is my prejudice speaking. The system works for them, let them have it.

2a. Any australian who rang the red cross or other charities to get their tsunami donation back because of the verdict against Corby is a disgrace.

3. It is entirely possible that Ms. Corby is guilty. Hysterical outcry for the Australian government to intervene is at best ignorant hyperbole, at worst willful racism. There’s rarely such an outcry over the Australian judiciary.

I entirely agree with the kitchen analogy. Now let the unfortunate girl try and deal with her sentence quietly.


David Smith 05.30.05 at 5:10 pm

Why did that Bali Bomber get only 30 months?

Indonesia is a lousy backwards nation rule by corrupt little you know whats.


John Quiggin 05.30.05 at 6:41 pm

Bashir got off because the prosecutors couldn’t nail him on the main charges. In part this was because the US refused to allow key witnesses in their custody, notably Hambali, to testify.

Several of those convicted of the actual bombing were sentenced to death.


markus 05.30.05 at 7:10 pm

we’re mostly on the same page IMO. I’d just like to append “and work towards rules recognizing foreigness” to the end of your “understand and accept that those laws apply to everyone” (either explicitly or by inclusion of considerations of the state of mind of the perpetrator).
You bring up colonialism and I certainly don’t want to go back to that, but I believe there is a difference between taking into account special circumstances (including being a stranger) and presuming to rule over inferior people.
Likewise, your notion of personal responsibility, while I agree to it in principle IMHO doesn’t work out so nicely in every instance.
Perhaps I can convey that point better by two examples (though my last attempts at exemplification where apparently misleading. I don’t want to equate foreigners to the mentally handicapped.)
One example is from a German textbook, the fictious case of the African Bongo Zula, who comes to Germany, catches a small girl and eats it, yet can’t be persecuted for murder, because he was (presumably) not aware of European customs and habits differ in that respect. (granted it’s outlandish and racist, but it is a case of the law taking foreigness into account.) [technically the exception is for people who at the time of the crime where either unable to recognize the wrongness of what they did or unable to act according to the realisation of wrongness; typically applied in cases concerning mental illness]
Similarly, I have grave doubts that the average 18year old from Holland is able to fully anticipate the attitude towards pot e.g. the Indonesians have. We may arbitrarily declare him/her fully responsible at 18, but we shouldn’t forget that this is just a crutch, because we can’t access maturity in every case. Similarly, we may proclaim that as an intelligent adult he is capable to understand the local laws and act accordingly despite the fact that he may not even be mature enough yet to recognize that he would have to travel somewhere else first, to get a taste of being in a different civilisation and only afterwards consider going to Indonesia. I mean, if we recognize that our culture shapes us in many, many ways, we can’t really be believing that people are so turbo rational that they can shed all that the moment they cross a foreign border.
All that said, I agree all this doesn’t apply to the Corby case.
My concern was/is primarily that the wish to see ones coutrymen treated according to their native laws may be rooted in various ideas. Colonialist notions of native superiority are certainly among them, but there are others as well. Besides compassion, what springs to my mind is the notion I tried to get across in the last posts, namely that circumstances are different for foreigners in certain cases (again, dope across the border is a no-brainer IMO as well) and that the law should take that into account.


Benno 05.30.05 at 10:01 pm

The perpetual slaughter of tens of thousands of non-muslim indigenous and other Indonesians in the most barbaric and heinous ways does not warrant any calls for boycotts and bans on Indonesia, yet the incarceration of one Australian female sends the entire nation into epileptic fits.
Is the life of one white, purportedly innocent Australian (and she has not even been sentenced to death) so much more important than the tens of thousands of other innocent lives lost at the hands of the jihadists of jakarta, that we are only now entertaining the thought of boycotts?
And should Corby be telling the truth, isn’t it more repulsive that fellow Australians have steadfastly stood silent knowing all too well that their acts of cowardice have landed a fellow Australian in a foreign jail? Should we therefore not boycott Australia as well??


Tom 05.31.05 at 1:25 am

If the Australian media and the Corby family had allowed the Indonesians to deal with Schapelle Corby in a quiet manner, she may have only received 3-5 years with time off for good behaviour. Instead, because of the vulture media who are only interested in ratings, the whole case became a soap-opera with no depth to debate. Of course the media (mainly the Australian commercial media) will never subject itself to ethical guidelines whilst there are advertising dollars to be had, but the have the loss of twenty years of a young woman’s life at least partly on their hands. I encourage all Australians to ignore the commercial TV and radio stations, never buy the mindless offal of the Herald Sun and the Telegraph, and respect that the information that they get from all media is controlled by the editors, who answer to money


Realist 05.31.05 at 4:51 pm

So Schapelle Corby and her supporters would like us to all believe that she is the innocent victim in a drug smuggling ring.

I hesitate at this notion that the drugs were put into her bag for transport to Sydney or any other part of the world for the following.

Here we have 4 kilo’s or about 10 pounds of cannabis that’s worth around 30 thousand dollars.

I have serious reservations that any drug dealer would relinquish control of his stash. but here goes the scenario.

Think of the position he puts himself in. Firstly either he or a friend (who will want to get paid for the endeavour)needs to enter a highly secure area (an airport) with a large bag of dope. What idiot would try this as even if they think they can get away with it the chances of discovery are increased with the area they are going into.

This person then has to find a piece of baggage that’s going to the destination of choice that has enough room to fit 10 pounds of dope in it and is in a position that allows him to get the dope into the bag without being detected. Very risky in a secure area even if you know what’s going on.

Let’s say the end destination is Sydney. The person now has to put the next guy in the line in the loop and tell him what flight and which bag. The possibility of the next guy being in the right place at the right time without anybody being around is very low as the selection of the bag etc is random and who knows where loader no. 2 is going to be working in Sydney.

Can he get to the correct flight baggage and find the correct bag in time.

(How long would it take for Airport staff to find your baggage if you had to be offloaded from a flight – 10 minutes 20 minutes???)

Loader N0 2 then has to get the dope out and secret it in the airport somewhere without another person knowing before heading to the next person who is probably the buyer.

Lets get real here, if the dope is only worth 30K how much is it going to cost to pay the loaders, lets say a grand each – which is chicken feed to earn if you could be caught with 10 pounds up your jumper. Even 5 grand each probably wouldn’t do much to entice and that’s 30% of the value of the product.

The risk that’s inherent with at least two other people handling your product is high even in an honest transaction.

The possibility of the package ending up at the correct destination is very very low. but this drug dealer is going to take the chances because driving to Sydney is far too risky!

Why on earth wouldn’t you just hire a bloody limousine and have some one drive you from Brisbane to Sydney. I’m sure it would be cheaper, comfortable and a little less risky.

For all that say “yeah but It happens” I say to you that if the shipment is 4 kilos of coke then the profit is so high and the money to offer the loaders is irresistible. For 4 kilos of dope – I doubt it very much.

Think of it like this, how good would your chances be if you had a pillow case stashed with 30000 dollars in 50 dollar notes and you took the above steps to get it from Brisbane to Sydney.

How many of you would try it and succeed if it was filled with feathers. Would the chances of you getting the pillow case in Sydney be 50/50… Probably less and the Corby supporters swear that this is how the dope got into the bag.

The reality is that dope dealers don’t let chance come into the delivery of the product without trying to negate it. They usually have mules to transit the drug. When there are no mules they pay high prices to make sure it gets through and cannabis doesn’t earn enough to be in this class of drug travel.

I noted that the demeanour of Corby c hanged within minutes of the sentence, her normal hysterical self was able to try and clam her mother. She was in control and certainly showed to me that perhaps all the previous hysteria was for the courts benefit.

It amazes me that in this accelerated world she wouldn’t submit to the court simple things like polygraph tests etc. If the innocence was that profound this would have been a marvellous test to start the court case with.

This has been a well orchestrated press sale that has produced excellent profits for the news agencies her in Australia. What a better cause to exploit – beautiful girl in a Bali prison…we lapped it up like puppies in a feeding frenzy

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