Five former drug dealers who got a second chance

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad in April.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad in April. Photo: Anta Kesuma

One of the more disheartening things to accompany the drawn-out path to execution of profoundly rehabilitated drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran, was the glee with which some Australians justified their fate.

With sentiments such as "save your compassion for the addicts", (as if empathy is a finite resource we must ration like sugar during a war) and "they knew the risks" (as if risk-taking behaviour itself is worthy of the ultimate penalty), commentators and the public alike turned their backs on the concepts of redemption and compassion.

It is odd, the way some Australians approved of these executions despite the fact that, had they been apprehended in our own country, they may well have been free men by now.

We can only speculate as to what the executed may have achieved in a life post-drugs. But there is good reason to think they would have gone on to much better things: the many former drug dealers who, having got that second chance, went on to turn their lives around, go on to have successful careers, and in some cases, bring immense happiness to millions of others.

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The five former drug dealers below would never have achieved the things they did if they too had had to pay for their worst youthful mistakes with their lives:

Tim Allen

The star of one of the most beloved '90s sitcoms, Home Improvement, Allen narrowly escaped a life sentence under Michigan's strict drug laws. Caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine at Kalamazzo-Battle Creek International Airport in 1978, Allen struck a plea deal with prosecutors. In exchange for the names of bigger players in the local drug scene, he pled guilty to trafficking and was sentenced to ten years.

It was in prison that Allen harnessed his talent- "I knew I was funny before that. But prison really woke me up."

Impressively, presiding judge Patrick McCauley recognised his comedic talent even then and, fully aware of the power of redemption, told him "There is a remarkable talent, don't waste it…Do your time. Then come out and do what you do best.  I expect you to be a very successful comedian."

Michael Coutts-Trotter

At the age of just 19, the young man who would go on to become the director general of the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, Coutts-Trotter, was sentenced to nine years for "conspiracy to import narcotics", after attempting to smuggle drugs from Thailand.

Pleading for clemency for Chan and Sukumuran, Coutts-Trotter said, "I was afforded a second chance by our Australian justice system. I remain grateful for that every day." In an emotional speech to parliament, his wife, deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, added:

"I imagine what would have happened if he'd been caught in Thailand instead of in Australia… What would the world have missed out on? Well, they would have missed out on the three beautiful children that we've had together. They would have missed out on a man who spent the rest of his life making amends for the crime that he committed."

Mark Wahlberg

From The Funky Bunch to The Fighter, Wahlberg has been a mainstay on the pop culture scene for more than two decades. Before his rise to fame, however, Wahlberg was a small-time drug dealer who at the age of just 16 was convicted of assault (downgraded from attempted murder) for beating two men without provocation.

Of his time in jail, Wahlberg says,  "As soon as I began that life of crime, there was always a voice in my head telling me I was going to end up in jail…Finally I was there, locked up with the kind of guys I'd always wanted to be like. Now I'd earned my stripes and I was just like them and I realized it wasn't what I wanted at all. I'd ended up in the worst place I could possibly imagine and I never wanted to go back." 

He never has.

Jeff Henderson

This celebrity chef won the Las Vegas Chef of the Year Award in 2001, but 13 years earlier he was making up to $35,000 a week cooking and selling his own cocaine in Los Angeles.

Busted after one of his couriers was caught at a border checkpoint, Henderson discovered his flair for cooking of a different kind during his eight years in prison. Inspired after coming across a newspaper article featuring the US's top African-American chefs, he began his post-prison career as a dishwasher and it wasn't long until Henderson commanded his own kitchen.

"Prison…rescued me from the streets," he says. "I have an obligation to give back because I feel like it was my generation that destroyed another generation of young black males."

Brian O'Dea

Now a successful film and television producer in Canada, O'Dea was once a marijuana smuggler who served ten years for importing 75 tonnes of weed into the United States.

Although hailing from a prominent family in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, O'Dea became a major player in the1980s drug underworld, managing both a $100 million a year "business" and a severe cocaine addiction.

He had already pulled himself out of the drug world, working with recovering addicts in California, before the law caught up with him. His 2007 book High was the recipient of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Non-Fiction Crime. O'Dea still shares his experiences with young people.

There are many others who have similarly redeemed themselves. Despite enormous promise, Chan and Sukumuran were denied the opportunity to join these ranks and become known for something other than their crime. That is our loss, as well as theirs.