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Indonesian drug policy under scrutiny

The below article was published in Brazil’s leading newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. You can read Patricia Campos Mello’s report in Portuguese here. This important piece highlights Reprieve and our Indonesian partner LBHM’s work, so we have translated it into English, in full. To read the report it is based on, Reorienting Drug Policy In Indonesia, click here.


Tito, 21, started using methamphetamine, called sabu-sabu in Indonesia, to be able to stay awake for many hours. “I worked as a driver for a delivery app, and in order to earn a little more, I needed to be available at all times,” he said through his lawyer, Yosua Octavian, coordinator at LBH Masyarakat, an organisation that offers legal aid. He started using the drug regularly two years ago, because it helped him stay upbeat and not feel tired

Last year, he was arrested at a hotel in central Jakarta, the capital. Tito was beaten by police for hours until he admitted he had 0.4 grams of the drug. His lawyer asked for him to be taken to a rehabilitation center. But prosecutors sought an eight year prison sentence, claiming he was a drug dealer, and the judge sentenced him to two years.

Tito is in the Cipinang prison in Jakarta. In September, there were 3,041 prisoners there – although the capacity is 1,136. Up to 30 prisoners are held in cells designed for 10 people. “It is a disgrace that a 19-year-old boy ends up in prison for being a user,” says the lawyer.

Indonesia has one of the strictest anti-drug laws in the world. A person caught with drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine or methamphetamine for personal use can be sentenced to up to four years in prison or forced rehabilitation.

Parents of underage drug users are obliged to report their children – if they do not, they could face up to six months in prison.

“In practice, the narcotics law does not differentiate between users and traffickers when criminalising possession. A student caught with a joint could be sentenced to years in prison, ” says lawyer Ricky Gunawan, one of the country’s leading drug policy experts.

Possession of group 1 drugs, considered the most dangerous and with the greatest potential for dependence, can be punished with 4 to 12 years in prison and fines of 800 million to 8 billion rupees (£42,000-£420,000 in a country where the monthly minimum wage is £200). Group 1 drugs include marijuana, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), methamphetamine, heroin and others.

If the person has more than 1 kg of marijuana or 5 g of cocaine, for example, they can face life imprisonment. If you are dealing in these volumes, you can be put to death.

This happened to two Brazilians in 2015. Marco Archer, 53, was executed by firing squad in January of that year. He had been sentenced to death in 2004, after being arrested with 11 kg of cocaine inside hang glider tubes. Rodrigo Muxfeldt Gularte, 42, was executed in April of the same year, after being arrested in 2004 for trying to enter the country with 6 kg of cocaine hidden in surfboards.

The Indonesian government ignored the fact that Gularte had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, in two separate reports. Lawyer Gunawan assisted in the defence of Gularte.

In 2015 and 2016, Indonesia executed 18 people for drug-related crimes. LBHM estimates that there are 413 people on death row, 275 of whom were convicted of drug-related crimes.

According to lawyer George Havenhand, of Reprieve, those who are users should not be included in articles 111 and 112 of the narcotics law, which provide for between 4 and 12 years in prison. They should be tried under Article 127, which provides for a maximum sentence of 4 years or rehabilitation.

But in practice, the police target users. “If they can’t pay a [bribe], they are more likely to be arrested under articles 111 or 112,” says Havenhand, author of the study “Reorienting Drug Policy in Indonesia”, published in June.

Rich people are rarely detained, says Octavian. “The most common method is to release the accused after receiving a certain amount … When someone is arrested and not taken immediately to the police station, the police officer is usually negotiating in the car.”

The result of this draconian policy is prison overcrowding. Indonesian prisons have the capacity to house around 130,000 prisoners, but currently hold more than twice as many people.

The number of prisoners for drug-related crimes rose from 10% of the total in 2002 to 48% in 2019, according to the head of the prison department. In 2000, there were about 53,000 detainees in Indonesian prisons. In 2019, there were 269,775, of which 129,820 were convicted of drug-related crimes – and 51,971 (19%) for being users.

Although the legislation provides for the possibility for the user to go to a rehabilitation centre, this rarely happens. According to the Indonesian Criminal Justice Reform Institute, in 2016, 94% of those detained for drug-related crimes ended up in prison, while 6% were referred for treatment.

Professor Asmin Fransiska, from the Indonesian university Atma Jaya, points out that there are perverse incentives for incarceration. “Police officers and prosecutors earn points [on their performance scores] when processes and investigations end up in conviction and imprisonment, and not when people are referred for rehabilitation,” says Fransiska.

The spread of HIV is another side effect of criminalisation. Indonesia has one of the highest HIV rates in the region, concentrated among injecting drug users. The war on drugs stigmatises them and creates obstacles to access to treatment and harm reduction, such as the distribution of syringes or methadone, for example. Users fear being arrested for seeking these services.

Only a small minority receive treatment. Most of the centres provide for compulsory hospitalisation of three to six months and require complete abstinence, often without palliative care for the effects of the absence of the drug.

The country’s drug policy is anchored in questionable statistics. In December 2014, President Joko Widodo declared that the country was experiencing a “drug emergency”, stating that 4.5 million Indonesians were users and that “up to 40 to 50 people per day die”. The figures were from a study by the state anti-drug agency, BNN, and were criticised by experts.

Among the errors was the classification of everyone who claimed to have tried drugs as users, for example.

Experts are not optimistic about the possibility of reforming drug policy in the short or medium term. “I don’t think any degree of decriminalisation is going to happen in the next five years – it’s politically unlikely, it’s not among the priorities,” says Gunawan.

The narcotics law is on the agenda for legislation to be discussed by 2024, alongside 40 others. “There is no political gain in defending drug policy reform, while the hard line, the war on drugs, pays political dividends. There will be an urgent need for reform only when overcrowding in the prison system leads to massive drug trafficking in prisons or riots.”

For Gunawan, the drug war was Joko Widodo’s way of consolidating his power.

After assuming his first term in 2014, Widodo faced a turbulent first hundred days, with criticism of ministers and popular discontent with the price of fuel. The drug war was a way of showing himself to be a strong, nationalist leader and regaining power.

Hatred of traffickers and drugs finds widespread support in society, although there is no research quantifying approval. The Indonesian leader warned that he would be relentless with drug dealers and would not pardon death row inmates. In his first term, he authorised the execution of 18 by firing squad.

Since that time, and even more since 2019, the most conservative wing of Islamists has started to pressure Widodo and question his religiousness. The emergence of the alleged drug epidemic is one of the few issues that can galvanise conservative and moderate Islamists.

“Everyone within the government and in society is working together to fight drugs, which are our greatest enemy,” said Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, then Minister of Religion.

“In Indonesia, it is very popular to maintain a strict anti-drug policy and to be tough on drug traffickers. President Jokowi uses these devices without any shame. It doesn’t matter that it is destroying the prison administration, where half of the inmates are there because of drugs,” says Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Indonesia.

Widodo admitted to having been inspired by the Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte , whose war on drugs has resulted in more than 25,000 deaths, international condemnation and popularity among sections of the population.

In 2016, 16 people were killed in police anti-trafficking operations in Indonesia. In 2017, Widodo implemented the “shoot on sight” policy – and the number of deaths increased sixfold, reaching 98.

Nor is the possibility of further executions ruled out. They have not occurred since 2016, but the moratorium is not official. “The pause in executions is circumstantial – judges continue to sentence people to death,” says Gunawan. In 2019, at least 80 received the penalty. “And Widodo can restart executions whenever he wants – or needs” to boost his popularity.