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Australia Agonising Over the Problem of Cocaine Use by Lawyers

White powder on black silk. The imagery is powerful and the prospect frightening. Australia is currently wracked by reports that many lawyers have turned to cocaine in a big way, throwing the entire legal system in disarray.

Peter Hayes, for instance, once hailed as a brilliant advocate, is lying critically ill in an Adelaide hospital. He was found naked and unconscious last Friday in a hotel room by the client he was in Adelaide to represent.. Following a police investigation of Hayes' collapse, a young woman, reportedly a prostitute, is to be charged with having administered him a drug of dependence.

As Hayes' family hold vigil by his bedside, the Melbourne bar in the state of Victoria is hotly debating whether there is a serious cocaine problem in its ranks. There are also questions about how the bar should handle any such problems.

Two years ago it was another lawyer who had written to the Victorian Bar demanding Hayes be tested for drug use and assessed psychiatrically, but the complaint was thrown out as motivated.

At the time the solicitor wrote another letter in which he said that if such a complaint had been made about a policeman, the policeman would have been drug tested. He claimed "(The bar) is more intent on protecting the 'reputation' of the bar than protecting the public".

A senior counsel claimed earlier this week that cocaine use was "rife" at the bar and had almost replaced alcohol as the recreational drug of choice in some circles. He acknowledged that he had never seen examples of it himself but said he had heard reports of "more than one" lawyer using cocaine.

Another said. "I do know that senior lawyers use drugs. We go to restaurants in Melbourne or Sydney, (capital of New South Wales) in Sydney it is much more prevalent with the top law firms and you sit there at the table and you use your credit card to cut the cocaine into nice little lines."

He said some law yers used amphetamines at night and then used tranquillisers to bring themselves down before they appeared in court in the morning.

He put the drug use down to wealth: "We earn extraordinary amounts of money. It's not just lawyers, it's investment bankers and the corporate world, senior management and advertising. It's part of the culture of having whatever you want and having a good time. We are intellectual enough to be able to think about risks and we are able to afford to get the pure stuff."

The former wife of one barrister, who believes her marriage broke up several years ago because of his cocaine use, said it was partly about narcissism: "(You have) young men earning huge sums of money, top-shelf wine, top-shelf addresses and top-shelf coke; men with egos already in outer space."

She said the arrogance of the "barrister funster league" was astonishing: they worked within the law but felt free to break it. Cocaine use in the law hit the headlines with the jailing in 2001 of Melbourne lawyer Andrew Fraser for possession and trafficking. In 2004, The Australian Financial Review reported that Fraser had been a member of the "Negroni Commission" (named after the cocktail), a fast-moving social group of about 20 people, mostly lawyers, who had Friday lunches involving cocaine and callgirls.

Fraser himself had warned at that time about the widespread use of drugs in the profession. He was eventually jailed for five years by the Victorian County Court after pleading guilty to charges of drug trafficking, possession and being knowingly concerned in the importation of 5.5 kilograms of cocaine.

Before he became addicted to cocaine, Fraser had been one of Victoria's best-connected lawyers. He spoke at the second wedding of top silk Julian Burnside and also attended his 50th birthday party. But that all ended when Fraser developed a drug habit that finished up costing him as much as $1000 a day. And he is not th e only solicitor who has been convicted of drug trafficking.

Australian Federal Police sources say that there are taped intercepts of a conversation between a "supergrass" and drug boss Tony Mokbel in which a Melbourne lawyer was named as someone using drugs. But the police also warned that the two parties having the conversation were unreliable witnesses.

Using cocaine would be a ground for complaint as it is illegal; if it were proved to be affecting a lawyer's performance, he could be suspended from practice immediately. But the bar has been partial to its members, it is charged.

There are many who point out that like performance-enhancing drugs in sport, cocaine can provide an unfair advantage. At the very least, the legal profession should require an annual medical check-up and if a drug problem is revealed, then those lawyers should receive help to overcome their problem.

There is another reason for the profession to take a more robust position on drugs: the need to protect the public. Random drug tests and annual medical checkups might be a sound investment in the reputation of the legal profession, says Ysaiah Ross, author of Ethics in Law.


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