Indonesia and the New War on Drugs

Following the dramatic executions of drug traffickers in April 2015, the Indonesian government decided to step up its anti-narcotics efforts, reinforcing public condemnation of drugs while slashing activists' hopes for progressive reforms.


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“We need to change the law. There should be no more [distinction about] users … so that dealers don’t shield themselves behind the definition of a user,” said Budi Waseso, the new chief of the Indonesian National Narcotics Board (BNN), who recently proposed an end to BNN-funded rehabilitation programs.

Despite being home to millions of drug users, Indonesia has long been known for its hardline attitudes towards drug-related issues, ranging from its disproportionate prison sentencing, problematic rehabilitation programs, to the stigmatization and generalization of drug use.

It all began to intensify when President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) declared war on drugs. Jokowi, who was initially known for his down-to-earth attitudes and promises in regard with improving the nation's welfare system and accountability, suddenly decided to raise the issue of drugs following the dramatic executions of drug traffickers in April. Since then, the largest Southeast Asian nation has strengthened its anti-narcotics stance, working together with other ASEAN countries as one of the major supporters of the outdated prohibitionist approach towards drugs.

While facing criticisms, Jokowi argued that 40 to 50 people died each day because of illicit drug consumption, while 4,5 million Indonesians required rehabilitation programs. Due to its highly problematic research methodology, this statistic raised many questions, expressed through an open letter initiated by the Indonesian Drug Users' Network (PKNI) which was signed by 16 prominent academics, as well as religious leaders and human rights activists in Indonesia. Despite this, the aforementioned number kept resonating in the media, accompanied by the increasing number of news reports on drug arrests and seizures.

Indonesia's problematic legal framework

According to the 2014 report released by the BNN, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and cannabis are the most commonly used illicit drugs in Indonesia. Many of us know the enormous difference between ATS and cannabis, yet as dictated by the UN drug control system, both substances are still listed as Schedule I drugs. This not only results in unnecessary punishment for non-violent drug offenders, but it also perpetuates the notion that all Schedule I drugs yield the same level of physical and psychological harms.

Besides classifying psychoactive substances, the current Indonesian anti-narcotics law—passed in 2009—covers a list of penalties for drug-related offences including production, possession, distribution, sales and trafficking.

Being vaguely defined, some of these offences may often be interchangeable, depending on factors such as the relevant law enforcement official(s) as well as the political situation at the time. Let's say a group of three friends are planning to smoke some cannabis together, yet only one of them leaves the house to buy it from a dealer nearby. If that person gets caught by a police or  BNN officer, it is quite likely that he/she is arrested as a dealer, as the purchased drug is intended to be shared with two other people.

The law furthermore has its own implications for farmers of crops for illicit use, the crucial yet often marginalized actors in the picture, as the law requires a penalty of 5-20 years or life imprisonment as well as a minimum fine of eight billion rupiahs (about $550,000) in the case of cultivation of more than one kilogram or five plants. However, cannabis farmers, who primarily reside in Aceh and other parts of Sumatra, sometimes rely on the protection of the Indonesian military, according to a member of the Indonesian Drug Users' Network (PKNI).

The BNN maintains that the anti-narcotics law is supposed to help drug users and addicts recover through rehabilitation programs, and that prison sentences are mostly issued for drug dealers and traffickers. According to the PKNI however,  of the thousands of drug users arrested in 2014, only 17 were sent to rehabilitation centres, while the rest were required to serve prison sentences, partly contributing to the 145 per cent of prison overcapacity since July 2015. Even if a user or addict is transferred to a rehabilitation centre, a PKNI member explains, he/she is less likely to receive scientifically- proven effective treatment.

Indonesia's new war on drugs: a war on drug users?

Jokowi's war on drugs has resulted in a policy which authorizes the BNN and the Ministry of Social Welfare to gather 100,000 drug users to be sent to rehabilitation centres, the PKNI explains. The implementation, however, has been rather problematic. An official managing to gather more people also  receives higher financial compensation; in sum, it's all about the number and its consequent financial reward.

Practices such as forced urine tests, fraudulent sales of controlled medicines—where officials secretly record buyers' personal details—have been quite pervasive. The amount of anti-drug propaganda also seems to have soared as more anti-drug slogans are shown on the streets of big cities, while the new BNN head Waseso has repeatedly referred to drug users in pejorative ways, ranging from “broken people” to ”train them so these humans can be of some use.” Of course, he as an individual would not have the ability to change the law, as it undoubtedly requires examinations and deliberations from both members of the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court.



Waseso's proposal to amend the anti-narcotics law and penalize drug users was also countered by government officials such as the justice minister as well as the former head of BNN, Anang Iskandar. However, following the institutional changes, Indonesian drug policy organizations such as PKNI, can only hope that they will not have to start their political efforts all over, especially considering the strong influence of draconian drug policies in the neighbouring ASEAN countries.

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