IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME © Duncan Graham
When Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he found it incredible that young people would still try to smuggle drugs in and out of Asia when the penalties were so high, he reflected widespread incredulity.
On 2 December Nguyen Tuong Van, a young Melbourne salesman, is due to hang in Singapore for trying to smuggle 400 grams of heroin. The island state has already executed more than 500 people mainly for drug offences.
There are 228 Australians in gaol awaiting trial in 60 nations. Some face the death penalty. A further 175 have been convicted and are serving sentences, most for drug smuggling.
The Indonesian court appearances of Schapelle Corby, Michelle Leslie and the Bali Nine have been given saturation media coverage in Australia.
Australian travel documents all warn of the dangers of using and carrying drugs. Big signs at Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport and other entry points shout the same clear message.
Tourists may get waved past some Asian checkpoints but Australian customs controls are ruthless. All bags are sniffed by drug detection dogs and either opened or X rayed. Getting through an Australian airport sometimes seems to take as long as the flight.
There’s no way any traveller could be unaware of the awesome risks. Yet still they try.
As a journalist I’ve put this question to criminals in Australian jails and the results reveal the mountainous task confronting social engineers.
Some pitiful creatures are so hooked they’ll chance anything for a fix. Airport arrests of these unfortunates are rare because they’re such obvious emotional and physical wrecks they’d make useless mules.
Australian police identify two main groups; individual users who find drugs cheap and easy to obtain in Asia and think taking some home would be a good idea, and couriers recruited by drug syndicates.
Many are alleged to owe money in Australia and have been offered the chance to clear their debts by smuggling drugs.
How do cocaine czars, who never risk travel with body belts of the white stuff, convince these fools that they’ll pass customs surveillance?
Obviously the high financial rewards are an inducement, but the most powerful arguments are that only the careless get caught and smart operators will always be able to fool or bribe authorities.
The word on the street, which carries far greater clout than all the official warnings, is that drug smuggling is easy. “Everyone” has a mate who’s done it dozens of times with success and made a mint.
This is why using reformed druggies to lecture students in Australian schools on the evils of narcotics has not been a success.
While adults hear former prisoners tell of their torments with horror and vow never to be tempted, researchers have found that the kids think: “What a loser! Look at that dithering moron. No wonder he got caught. It’ll never happen to me. I’m far smarter.”
Psychologists say it’s the same bravado which makes young men believe they’re bulletproof and can drink to excess and drive fast cars.
The statistics say otherwise, but what would those clumsy cops and dopey doctors know?
Likewise with the SAY NO TO DRUGS banner campaign now sweeping Indonesia. It was tried in Australia and failed because the message was saturated in hypocrisy.
Modern kids aren’t easily fooled. The gateway drugs to narcotics are nicotine and alcohol, both legal and taxed. A few years ago heroin related deaths in Australia peaked at more than 700, but have since reportedly declined through harm reduction programs.
Yet 19,000 people die annually from tobacco-related diseases, and the figure in this nation is reported to be around 500,000.
Australia has a drug problem that’s taken seriously by lawmakers and the courts. There’s no death penalty, but as a reporter I’ve seen the conditions and can assure doubters that spending years in a jail Down Under is no holiday.
To answer the question as to why anyone would use or smuggle drugs, just look for the answer in any home or workplace.
How many of your friends, relatives and colleagues smoke although the packet warns tobacco use can result in cancer and heart attacks? Deaths from these diseases are truly awful and the impact on families devastating. These are severe penalties indeed.
If educated and aware adults are prepared to ignore clear government health warnings backed by irrefutable statistics - should we wonder that the impressionable young are also just as willing to take risks to get their drug of choice?
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Sunday 4 December 2005