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Indonesia’s drug obsession is only making things worse

When Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was elected as President of Indonesia in late 2014, the world was enthralled. He was expected to be different — the first President in the nation’s history not connected to the old power order. In fact, he came from a surprisingly humble background; he was a former small-scale furniture salesman who rose to power by fighting corruption and getting things done. Here was a young, populist leader at the head of one of the world’s largest countries and most populous Muslim nation.

Just a few months later, this goodwill disappeared when Jokowi made the ill-advised decision to execute a dozen foreign nationals, including, most notably, two citizens from neighboring Australia, for drug-related crimes. It was the largest single use of the death penalty in Indonesia in nearly a decade and created an international crisis.

While there was definitely some hypocrisy at play (where was the global outrage when Saudi Arabia executed Indonesians in 2011?) the situation ended up being a lose-lose for Indonesia. The global outcry tainted Jokowi and the country’s international standing. Moreover, and importantly, the impact on the country’s drug problem was, not surprisingly, pretty much nil.

Part of it was because the death penalty, as a tool of fighting crime, just does not work. “We oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia Researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Moreover, the death penalty does not deter drug trafficking.” HRW also strongly believes the death penalty will do nothing to stop drugs from entering countries like Indonesia.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise. Amnesty International, HRW, and other civil society organizations believe that the death penalty is discriminatory, prone to misuse by skewed justice systems, and does nothing to deter crime. According to Amnesty, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority because of discrimination in the justice system. Moreover, poor and marginalized groups have less access to the legal resources needed to defend themselves.

This goes beyond the death penalty, which is just the most harsh tool in the plethora of heavy-handed, police and military focused anti-drug tactics. And on this, President Jokowi is, amazingly, doubling down. This past February, he stated in a speech that drugs were Indonesia’s top problem, calling for more a aggressive, punishment heavy, anti-drug push.

Perpetuating bad policy

Think about that for a second. This is a country with rampant corruption, severely lacking infrastructure, where tens of millions still don’t have Internet, one out of two Indonesians lack reliable clean water, and the education system is ranked near the bottom of an survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Those are all problems worth tackling, and each could be called the country’s top challenge. But drugs?

Certainly a problem, though many dispute the Government’s figures of 4 million addicts nationwide, with 30 dying each day. Just not the biggest one.

It’s not just the diagnosis that’s worrisome — so too is the prescription. Indonesia’s use of the death penalty was just one sign of a policy focused on imprisonment and police tactics. As experiences from other countries shows, such a “war on drugs” not only won’t work, but can make things worse.

Jokowi’s policies harken back to the experiences of countries like the United States in the 1960s, when the so-called “War on Drugs” began. Heavy-handed police tactics and a court system focused on imprisonment rather than rehabilitation has left the country with the largest prison population in the world, and no discernible reduction in drug use, as the recent heroin epidemic attests.

The impacts on America’s neighbor, Mexico — which economically more resembles Indonesia than the United States — are even worse. There, in certain regions, the war on drugs has become a literal war, with 27,000 killed, many civilians, in 2011 alone. For comparison’s sake, Indonesia estimates that 8,000 people die from drugs in the country every year — a number that could probably be reduced through better healthcare rather than more arrests and death penalty convictions.

Jailing addicts alongside traffickers

Frighteningly, the country is already heading down the path of mass incarceration — and seeing the impacts. Harsh new laws are being considered that would increase punishment for drug offenses, potentially including draconian penalties such as force-feeding drug traffickers their own narcotics until they die. In fact, many of these drug laws are inspired by the U.S. approach to drugs, which were promulgated in Indonesia through the United Nations’ failed narcotics policy. These laws, as they currently stand, do not distinguish between drug traffickers and addicts, putting far too many addicts into overcrowded prisons.

“Criminalising the consumption of even small amounts of drugs has led to a massive increase in the number of prison inmates,” said Michael Buehler, a lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, to Al Jazeera. “Around 60 percent of the 12,000 people locked up in the capital Jakarta alone are imprisoned for substance abuse.”

Focusing on improving social services such as health care could actually have more impact on reducing drug usage in Indonesia than greater use of the death penalty or putting more drug users in jail. In fact, the country estimates that 1.2 million drug addicts need immediate medical care, yet there are only 22,000 beds across the country. Expanding this system, and ensuing that addicts get care, would be one step towards actually solving the problem.

“If the Indonesian government were really serious about protecting the wellbeing of its citizens, it would pursue harm-reduction strategies aimed at Indonesian drug users instead of executing drug traffickers,” said Buehler.

Chief among these would be fighting corruption, as, according to World Press, it is closely connected to the drug issue.

Understanding drug problems in Indonesia is complicated by the open secret that drug dealing is tied to politics and the security forces. Many police and soldiers test positive for drugs in their urine (usually Ecstasy, amphetamines, or low-grade heroin).

There is still time for Jokowi to change his mind, and focus on the real problems facing Indonesia. If he does, the world will stand behind him, because even though he lost his goodwill last year, we’re still eager for a Democratic, populist hero in Southeast Asia. Shifting his priorities away from drugs and focusing on Indonesia’s social challenges, such as corruption, education, health, or even gender inequality, would be a boon not only for the country’s 240 million citizens, but for the world. These initiatives would likely have the side effect of reducing drug use as well.

Let’s hope that he comes to his senses soon, before it’s too late.

Photo: ahmad syauki/Creative Commons


Nithin Coca

Nithin is a freelance journalist who focuses on global economic, social, and environmental issues with an aim at building channels of communication and collaboration around common challenges. He contributes regularly to Triple Pundit, the Diplomat, the Daily Dot, Entelligent, and numerous other global and regional media outlets.

One thought on “Indonesia’s drug obsession is only making things worse

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