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Indonesia can win its war on drugs, by ending it

Jakarta | Tue, October 24, 2017 | 02:34 pm
Indonesia can win its war on drugs, by ending it National Narcotics Agency (BNN) Chief Comr. Gen. Budi Waseso (right) holds a package of shabu-shabu (crystal methamphetamine) at the Merdeka Square in Medan, North Sumatra, on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Drugs evidence seized during police operations, including 191 kilograms of crystal meth, 43,000 ecstasy pills, and 500 kilograms of mariyuana, were destroyed during the event. (The Jakarta Post/Apriadi Gunawan)

Is Indonesia copying Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs? Human rights activists fear the worst for Indonesia’s ‘shoot-on-sight’ policy that was adopted in an attempt to fight illegal drug trafficking in the country.

The number of drug-related extrajudicial killings reportedly skyrocketed to a total of 80 since January this year, a sharp increase from last year’s 16.

“Reported arrests related to drug abuse [in Indonesia] always involve death. Did the suspects resist arrest every time or were they just killed [by the police?],” asks Indonesian Ombudsman commissioner Adrianus Meilala who recently initiated investigations into the accountability of anti-drug operations.

It is not hard to draw a parallel to the bloody war on drugs in the Philippines which to date has claimed the lives of more than 13,000 civilians. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo shows no hesitation in expressing his strong stance against what he claims to be a narcotics ‘emergency’: “Gun them down. Show no mercy,” he says of drug traffickers.

Calls from the authorities for tougher drug policies are not uncommon in Indonesia. National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian proclaims that a “Duterte-style shoot-on-sight” policy serves as a deterrent and effectively contributes to the clampdown of drug-related crimes. The head of National Narcotics Agency (BNN), Comr. Gen. Budi Waseso, praised Duterte’s anti-drug policy, pointing out, “It shows he is taking care of his citizens”.

Indonesia’s drug policy aims to protect the youth from becoming a so-called “drug generation”, to prevent alleged “destruction” of the nation and its morals and to curb the number of drug-induced deaths. It is unlikely that mass criminalization and fighting a war against drugs will resolve Indonesia’s drug problem.

First of all, there is no convincing evidence that criminalization has a positive influence on drug use, trafficking or production. In fact, extensive research conducted into this matter has shown no deterrence; in the months following the executions of January and April 2015, the number of drug-related crimes in Indonesia reportedly increased. Insofar as Indonesia’s drug policy is concerned, the classic deterrence theory is thus an illusion.

Drugs in their very essence are consumer goods that satisfy particular human wants. Arguing from a purely economic rationale, as long as there is demand for illegal drugs, there is going to be supply. In order to tackle drug-related issues, it is therefore crucial to bear in mind the underlying demand for illegal drugs.

Why do people resort to drug use in the first place? According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), vulnerability to drug use is influenced by the interplay of many risk factors from different developmental contexts. They include, among others, the availability of drugs, poor parenting, violence, dropping out of school and risky sexual behavior.

A significant problem is the fact that Indonesian law hardly distinguishes between drug users and traffickers and criminalizes both for involvement in illicit trade. Consequently, Indonesia’s prisons are overloaded with low-level, non-violent drug offenders, which cost the state a lot of money and negatively impact social structures and family ties.

Mass criminalization instigates a climate of fear, which discourages drug users from seeking treatment or rehabilitation for an addiction. The outcome is less awareness, less transparency, less monitoring and a rising number of HIV infections due to sharing needles.

If a war on drugs is not the answer, then what is?

Outside the borders of Indonesia, some countries have adopted an alternative approach to combat the spread of illegal drugs. Portugal, for instance, has flipped its strategy in 2001 from fighting a war on drugs to decriminalizing the possession of less than what is considered a 10-day supply of any illicit drug and launching major public health campaigns to tackle addiction. In contrast to a “drug boom” prediction by the critics, the number of drug users steadily declined and the rate of new HIV infections allegedly dropped from 1,016 cases in 2001 to only 56 in 2012 – a considerable success.

The Netherlands divides drugs between hard (ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, LSD) and soft (hashish, marijuana). The Netherlands’ policy allows the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops under strict regulations to prevent soft drugs user from coming into contact with hard drugs. Coffee shops are thus established to cut links with the criminal underworld associated with hard drugs and to create a safe environment for cannabis users.

Portugal and the Netherlands’ experiences show that in order to protect society from illegal (hard) drugs, it is crucial to break the link between drugs and crime. Indonesia’s war on drugs, however, is currently doing the opposite, tightening the link between drugs and crime. 

This may be time for Indonesia to reconsider its current drug policy. “Shoot-on-sight” operations are not merely non-deterrent and highly ineffective, they also result in less transparency and monitoring. This does victims of drug abuse more harm than good.

As an alternative to criminalization, Indonesia could explore a policy that is built around harm-reducing interventions instead. According to the “Target-Setting Guide” proposed by the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS, harm-reducing measures, whose practical effectiveness in the prevention and treatment of drug addiction has been demonstrated, include among others: clean needle and syringe programs; targeted information; education and communication with regard to drug-related matters; stigma reduction initiatives, and voluntary and community-based treatment.

It is beyond doubt that a shift in drug policy is likely to unfold a highly sensitive debate in Indonesia. Let us embrace this process and collaborate in the search for alternative policies that in the end aim for the same outcome: a healthy and drug-free Indonesian society.  


Irthe Blokhuizen graduated cum laude from Utrecht University with a master’s degree in international law and human rights. She is an independent human rights researcher who has been living in Indonesia for over four years.


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