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No wins in the war on drugs: barrister

No wins in the war on drugs: barrister

The arrest and detention of a 14 year old Australian boy in Bali highlights two important issues that are being conveniently ignored by politicians and media. Barrister Greg Barns writes.


The arrest and detention of a 14 year old Australian boy in Bali highlightstwo important issues that are being conveniently ignored by politicians andmany in the media. Barrister Greg Barns writes.


First, this young man, who while holidayingwith his parents is alleged to have purchased a small amount of cannabis, isa victim of the senseless and tragic global War on Drugs. The second matterof concern is that while Australians are being inundated with reports aboutthe plight of one of our own minors in Indonesia, little attention is beingpaid to the scandal of 30 plus young Indonesians being held in detentionaround Australia.

The War on Drugs was ignited by US President Richard Nixon in 1971 and itscore strategy is prohibition and treating drug consumption as a criminaljustice issue.  Australia and Indonesia both subscribe to this folly.  As aconsequence each year billions of dollars are wasted, and lives ruined, because police forces and courts enforce irrational policy.  The use andsale of drugs like cannabis is not an issue for the criminal justice system.


The proof of this is that drug trafficking and consumption in countries likeAustralia and Indonesia doesn't vary much from one year to the next.  As TheEconomist has wisely observed, "there are no wins in the War on Drugs, onlyphyric victories."

The arrest of this young boy in Bali is a product of the ridiculousprohibition policies of Indonesia.  While Australians and tourists fromother nations drink themselves stupid in Bali and do damage to their mindsand bodies, a child caught with a tiny amount of dope gets detained becausefor some bizarre reason cannabis is seen as more harmful than alcohol.

Possession and use of small amounts of cannabis or any other drug should notbe a criminal offence in Indonesia or Australia.  Instead a person caughtwith illicit drugs should receive counselling and health support.  This isthe model that has worked successfully for a decade in Portugal and is now
being trialled in the Czech Republic, Switzerland and parts of LatinAmerica.  Not surprisingly those countries have seen drug usage fall andtrafficking reduced.  If the Indonesians and Australians followed suit thenthe outrage of detaining a 14 year old boy would simply not occur and wewould make inroads into drug usage in our respective communities.

The political and diplomatic hurricane and media circus surrounding thisboy's plight should also focus us on what is happening in our backyard.  Wehave been detaining young Indonesians, arrested as crew members on boatsbringing asylum seekers to our shores, in our jails and detention centresfor sometime.  As at 31 July there were 35 in this category.  These boyshave little or no English, are far away from home and have no political ordiplomatic push to get them released.  Some have been in adult prisons -three in Brisbane aged 16 and 15 were released from a Brisbane prison inJune after legal and media pressure.

How can Australia call on the Indonesians to release a young man fromdetention when it does the same, in clear breach of the Convention on theRights of the Child?  And why isn't our media exposing Australia'shypocrisy.  With the notable exception of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald,other media outlets have shown little or no interest in the 35 Indonesianyouths.  Is it because of some latent racism on the media's part?

The best that can come from this Bali saga is for governments andcommunities to take stock of the policies that have led to detention ofchildren in Indonesia and Australia. But in a climate where self awarenessand reflection on the part of politicians is rare, don't hold your breath.

Greg Barns is a barrister and National President of the Australian LawyersAlliance.

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