When Schapelle Corby left Australia in 2005, she was just another 20-something heading off to Bali for a tropical vacation — she would return to tabloid levels of fame resulting from her harrowing ordeal.
In May of 2005, Corby was convicted of smuggling 4.2 kilograms of cannabis — a little less than 10 pounds — into the tiny island province through the Ngurah Rai International Airport.
Customs officers found the cannabis in one of the compartments of Corby’s bodyboard bag. Officials would go on to say that Corby attempted to prevent them from opening that part of the bag, but there is no video of the interaction or the bag’s chain of custody prior to Corby’s arrival at customs.
While North America has recently seen the release of high-profile cannabis prisoners like Eddy Lepp, Marc Emery and Jeff Mizanskey, those cases never reached the “household name” status that Corby’s did in Australia.
According to a recent report from The Transnational Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in Indonesia, with approximately two million users in 2014. Similar to the United States, current narcotics law in Indonesia includes cannabis among the most restricted Schedule I substances, along with heroin and crystal meth.
The report also noted that, between 2009 and 2012, 37,923 people were imprisoned for using cannabis — meaning that as many as 26 people were sentenced on a daily basis. As the most common choice of substance among drug users, cannabis accounts for up to 66 percent of all drugs consumed in the country.
While it’s still the very early goings in cannabis policy reform there, the efforts are being led by a group called Lingkar Ganja Nusantara.
But these local leanings have yet to materialize into real policy, and local officials were ready to throw the book at Corby.
The reporter who broke the story all those years ago said the prosecution team, which had prosecuted the Bali Bombers two years earlier, was in a bit of shock over how much the routine drug case turned into a national story.
Australian academics, like Lauren Rosewarne — a senior lecturer in social science at the University of Melbourne — have attempted to break down the country’s fascination with the Corby case.
Rosewarne told the New York Times the national reaction was almost evenly split for and against Corby.
“I think half the population saw themselves in her, saw her in a bad situation in no fault of their own,” she said. “I think the other half looked down at her — saw her as the equivalent of white trash.”
Much of the uproar at the time was over the potential death sentence for Corby that came with the drug trafficking charge. Death sentences for weed isn’t new there; just two years ago Indonesian national, Zainal Abidin, was executed for his minor role in a marijuana trafficking organization — he didn’t have the benefit of morning talk shows providing updates on his condition.
In the end, Corby — who did — was spared the noose by the chief prosecutor.
“I felt that Corby can still rehabilitate herself so the death sentence is not the punishment,” said Corby Prosecutor Ida Bagus Wiswantanu to News Corp Australia. “If she got the death sentence she cannot rehabilitate. But I felt that Corby has the chance to fix herself.”
We reached out to the Marijuana Policy Project to get their take on the most famous pot prisoner down under going free.
“This was great news. Stories like this remind me that, even though American marijuana prohibition is a harmful disaster, it is much worse in some countries,” said MPP Senior Communications Manager Morgan Fox. “There are people serving long sentences for marijuana in the U.S., but thankfully, those sentences are being given out more rarely. As marijuana penalties are decreased here and elsewhere, countries with harsh punishments should really start to rethink their policies or they risk both political and financial isolation.”
Now Corby has returned home to a country waiting with open arms.
TELL US, do you think the U.S. should withhold foreign aid from countries who execute people for cannabis crimes?