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Misguided drug laws

  • Sudirman Nasir

Makassar | Sun, July 31 2011 | 07:00 am

Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia’s response to drugs use has been characterized by moral panic, and an oppressive and punitive approach.

The application of a repressive approach became more apparent after the launch of Indonesia’s “national war on drugs” in 1997 in accordance with the announcement of the first Indonesian law on narcotics (Law No. 22/1997) and the first law on psychotropic (Law No. 5/1997).

These laws were introduced in the late term of Soeharto’s regime and the meanings embedded in both laws and the ways they have been enforced have generated various forms of problems for drug users.

It is worth noting that these two laws make little distinction between drug use and drug dealing. The laws categorize both actions deserving severe punishment.

The laws also allow sweeping arrests and lengthy prison sentences for traffickers, dealers and individuals found in possession of drugs. Those found guilty of being involved in drug dealing may be sentenced to more than nine years in prison or even death in certain circumstances. Those found in possession of even a small amount of narcotics may face up to nine years in prison.

Although the first Indonesian law on narcotics was amended in 2009 and the Indonesian government and House of Representatives introduced Law No. 27/2009, the law in fact still preserves most of the spirit of Indonesia’s “war on drugs”.

Moreover, the new law maintains the death penalty for some drug offenses and continues to criminalize drug dependency. It also makes it a crime for parents to fail to report their drug-dependent children to authorities.

The new law also states that a drug user can be legally detained for up to 72 hours, while the previous law only allowed detention for a maximum 24 hours. Moreover, the new law provides a bigger chance for abuse because it shifts some responsibility for fighting drug trafficking from the government to civil society.

The Indonesian Coalition for Drug Policy Reform has warned that this is dangerous and could lead to vigilantes and street justice. Furthermore, the Coalition offered criticism of the new law that maintains the death penalty as contrary to the purpose of modern criminal charges that aim to rehabilitate individuals involved in offenses rather than merely punish them for their actions.

The oppressive nature of the Indonesian laws on drugs clearly indicate a utopian aspiration for a drug-free society and a misleading understanding that a repressive and punitive approach will significantly reduce drug taking and drug-related crime.

Numerous studies have revealed that instead of decreasing drug use, drug-related harms and offenses, an oppressive approach frequently generates and exacerbates vulnerabilities particularly among young people in urban-poor neighborhoods. Unnecessarily strict and repressive regulations evidently impede access to essential social supports and health services including treatment and rehabilitation.

The fact that punitive drug laws hinder drug users’ access to essential services make these laws uniquely “criminogenic”, tending to push those who are dependent on drugs to engage in crime or offenses to support their drug dependency.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that there is little evidence supporting the notion that harsh punishment, including lengthy detention and imprisonment, may deter drug use and drug-related offenses among young people. A plethora of studies has even demonstrated that funding for drug treatment and rehabilitation is many times more cost-effective than imprisonment.

Repressive and punitive drug polices may also exacerbate HIV epidemics since drug injectors’ access to important services such as needle and syringe exchange programs and methadone maintenance treatment may be hindered, providing fertile ground for engagement in risky injecting practices. Furthermore, oppressive drug polices will increase the risk of detention and imprisonment among drug users.

The Indonesian National Narcotics Board in 2009, for example, acknowledged that the number of drug-related criminal cases significantly increased from 17,355 in 2007 to 22,630 in 2009 and the vast majority of these cases will end up in a lengthy imprisonment.

However, it should be noted that studies have shown that HIV-risk behaviors (such as the sharing of needles and other injecting equipment as well as having multiple sexual partner with a low level of condom use) are more common in overcrowded prisons in many countries, including Indonesia.

In addition, the widespread practice of torture, abuse, harassment, ill treatment and other forms of violation of human rights by police toward drug users during their detention and imprisonment should be highlighted.

In the Indonesian context for example, the Indonesian Harm Reduction Network in 2008 surveyed 1106 injecting drug users in 13 cities in the country about their experiences of police abuse and revealed that of those interviewed, 667, or 60 percent, reported physical abuse by police.

It is in the context of repressive drug policies across the globe that Julio Montaner, President of the International AIDS Society (IAS), at the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) in Vienna last year stated that “misguided drug policies fuel the AIDS epidemic and result in violence, increased crime rates and destabilization of entire states — yet there is no evidence that they have reduced rates of drug use or drug supply”.

The Vienna Declaration to support evidence-based drug policy was also signed and launched during the AIDS Conference.

The “Vienna Declaration” calls on governments and international organizations to take a number of urgent steps, including: to undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies; to implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the harms stemming from illicit drug use; to scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options; to abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centers that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and to unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the drug treatment and rehabilitation.

The writer is a lecturer and researcher at the School of Public Health, Hasanuddin University, Makassar.

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