The Blog

The World's Largest Opium Supplier, and the Truth Behind Drug Trafficking Death Sentences

Those in favour of capital punishment point out that if it's so obvious it's worse than life imprisonment, then this harsher consequence should logically be a stronger deterrent to criminals. This is a major justification for the death penalty.

Lindsay Sandiford a 56 year-old grandmother has been sentenced to death by Indonesian firing squad for carrying 4.8kg of cocaine. A verdict where the judges delivered a sentence harsher than the prosecution's recommendation.

What may have contributed to this judgement, besides the lack of mitigating factors in their opinion, was the judiciary's view that the defendant did not appear to care for the consequences of her actions. Yet her defence lawyer had previously explained a history of mental health problems contributed to her vulnerability.

Those with mental health difficulties often do not convey a helpful impression in trying circumstances.

That there was an audible gasp of shock in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered, plus all the publicity following, indicates a widely held view that the death penalty is significantly worse than life imprisonment.

Those in favour of capital punishment point out that if it's so obvious it's worse than life imprisonment, then this harsher consequence should logically be a stronger deterrent to criminals. This is a major justification for the death penalty.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics asserts one in ten offenders currently on death row in the USA had previously been convicted of another homicide. 4% of condemned offenders in the US committed their capital crimes while they were incarcerated. Another argument against life imprisonment instead of the death sentence. Incarceration doesn't mean protection from further killing from this dangerous group.

However, do these death penalty arguments of deterrence and proportionality apply to drug trafficking?

Those in favour of capital punishment claim to be endeavouring to robustly protect their communities from drugs corrupting influence on youth, destruction of traditional values, the threat to the foundations of stable society, as victims are degraded and die.

''Body packers'' or ''mules'' are those drug traffickers who swallow or insert into a body cavity, packages filled with illegal drugs, so smuggling them across borders. An example of the debasing extremes drugs drive people to?

Steven Koehler, Shaun Ladham, Leon Rozin, Abdulrezak Shakir, Bennet Omalu, Joseph Dominick and Cyril Wecht in a paper entitled 'The risk of body packing: a case of a fatal cocaine overdose' illuminate this clandestine phenomenon. They describe how in the 1980s the term, 'body packing syndrome' emerged to describe a series of 10 victims dying after swallowing packets of cocaine, avoiding detection from customs. The paper published in the journal Forensic Science International goes on to explain how an examination of fatalities among body packers in New York between 1990 and 2001, identified 50 such deaths.

The authors report that the Jamaican government claims one in 10 passengers from Jamaica is a 'body packer', and this could mean as many as 20 passengers per flight. To postpone natural evacuation, especially for long flights, the body packers take high dosages of anti-cholinergic drugs (atropine sulphate and diphenoxylate up to 25 tables per day). They also refuse to eat or drink during the flight. This is all extremely hazardous behaviour.

The majority of body packer's fatalaties result from acute intoxication due to the leaking of drug packets within the stomach. Given drug traffickers are frequently risking death in performing the crime, even if they aren't caught, how likely is capital punishment to be a deterrent?

A group of addiction scientists, Griffith Edwards, Tom Babor, Shane Darke, Wayne Hall, John Marsden, Peter Miller and Robert West recently published an editorial in the academic journal Addiction entitled 'Drug trafficking: time to abolish the death penalty', where they argued this is not a deterrence when it comes to drug trafficking.

They contend the trade in drugs is blossoming in the face of the most severe penalties, because it's the impoverished and replaceable 'mules' and runners who are most likely to be apprehended, then executed. Meanwhile the major dealers and producers are evading prosecution by bribing or assassinating their way out of trouble.

These scientists argue that detection is the crucial deterrent rather than severity of penalty. They point to drink driving as a telling example. This potentially lethal crime has been reduced not with the death penalty, but much more by removal of driving licenses coupled with high-visibility policing.

The editorial points out that in Afghanistan it seems opium farmers not only pay 10% of their profits to the Taliban, but might also be paying an unofficial 10% 'tax' to the police. This apparently allows them to operate imperiously.

Yet, the authors of this paper contend in some countries drug traffickers account for the majority of all executions, and are increasing in number.

Olivier Maguet and Murtaza Majeed, both of the Doctors of the World Harm Reduction Programme in Kabul, Afghanistan, have recently published a paper in the International Journal of Drug Policy entitled 'Implementing harm reduction for heroin users in Afghanistan, the worldwide opium supplier'. They point out the most recent reliable estimate is that there's around at least one million drug users in the country.

Kabul city alone is estimated to have 20,000-25,000 opium users and 15,000-20,000 heroin users. The paper reports evidence that the drug economy accounts for around US $3.5-4 billion, about half of Afghanistan's GDP.

According to Maguet and Majeed, the Soviet invasion in fact led to an increase in opium production, and by 2009 Afghanistan produced 90% of the world's opium. Afghan wars have been good for the drugs trade.

Maguet and Majeed describe Afghanistan as one of the most corrupted countries in the world, and argue the war actually provides the perfect chaotic setting for drug producers, refiners and traffickers. Few state regulations or controls work.

Instead of the usual sort of publicity over Prince Harry and his tour of duty in Afghanistan, he could have been asked his opinion on this predicament.

His statement "I take a life to save a life" now has new poignancy.

Just as his interview was being hyped in the press, with the focus on the Prince and not the reality on the ground for the ordinary Afghan, yet another drug trafficker, in this case a vulnerable British woman, was being sacrificed to the firing squad, while the drug barons back at source remain mysteriously protected.