Indonesian police burn confiscated marijuana at police headquarters in Jakarta. Pic: AP.

Gutless policy will do nothing to curtail burgeoning drug use in the Indonesian capital

Last week Basuki Purnama Tjahaja, the vice governor of Jakarta more commonly known as Ahok, announced an aggressive new pilot scheme designed to help rid the capital of illicit narcotics. With the support of National Police Criminal Investigations Chief, Suhardi Alius, Ahok will attempt to implement a ‘two strikes you’re out’ system, which – in theory – stipulates that any Jakarta nightlife venue which is twice caught harbouring drug-using patrons will immediately be shut down and have its licence revoked by the city authorities.

The launch of Ahok’s punitive new measure comes amid an unceasing torrent of alarmist drug trolling in Indonesia, in which several high-level commentators have warned of an impending “lost generation” due to increasing rates of drug use among Indonesia’s youth. Fears of a nationwide contagion have been buoyed by an unremitting campaign of misinformation and sensationalist reporting, prompting Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency (BNN) to sanctimoniously label 2014 as “The Year of Saving the Drug User”.

For those observers stubborn enough to maintain that a wholesale “eradication” (‘pemberantasan’) of currently illegal drugs is still a reasonable endgame for Indonesia’s politicians, rather than a ridiculous shared fantasy, Ahok’s latest bright idea might well appear to be a shrewd and principled change of tact. The vice governor has presented the shutdown measure in the manner of a typical moral crusader, pertaining to appear ‘tough on drugs’ by sanctioning punitive foreclosures, which he hopes will cut-off drug users from their usual source of narcotics, and ultimately help to scuttle Jakarta’s broader drug economy. Beneath the belligerent rhetoric, however, there undoubtedly lies an ill-conceived and totally infeasible policy – which has been timely crafted to coincide with the run-up to the 2014 elections, and will only float with the help of a string-pulled media circus.

Somewhat uncannily, certain outlets in the Indonesian press have already published glowing reports of Ahok’s crackdown, the most suspect of which emerged just one day after the vice governor announced the new policy. The said article ran with the fanciful headline: “Drug Dealers No Longer Trade in Night Clubs”, and quoted the head of the BNN’s Public Relations department, Sumirat Dwiyanto, who explained that, “Every time we perform a raid [on a nightclub], we are certain to catch drug users. But we’ve still never had a dealer or a courier apprehended at a nightclub… This proves that drug dealing is no longer present in the nightclubs, but there are still many users out there.”

Evidently, the BNN are no strangers to hyperbole and this is just another case in point. If the above statement ‘proves’ anything at all, it ought to be the existence of an escalating information war waged by the BNN in support of politicians like Ahok. Dwiyanto’s triumphant proclamation is not only a wholly circular argument, but it is also a dangerous and distortive item of conjecture sourced from the highest ranks of law enforcement. Drug dealers will not be purged from Jakarta’s night clubs overnight, excuse the pun, but the BNN and its related institution’s will certainly take advantage of the media fanfare offered by Ahok’s crackdown.

Any Jakartan who has ever visited the sort of establishments which Ahok is currently fixing his crosshairs on will surely consent that a citywide shutdown of drug-tendering venues is a political daydream of the most preposterous degree. These venues turn over millions of dollars in tax-free, illicit revenue, and the city’s police have long been complicit.

The most fundamental feature of Ahok’s crackdown – the good old-fashioned police raid – is by no means a novel idea among Jakarta policy-makers. Police raids have been a mainstay of the city’s drug battle for years, but have so far failed miserably to quell the capital’s thriving drug economy. Combining these raids with the additional threat of foreclosure is highly unlikely to produce any kind of deterrent effect on Jakarta’s nightclubs, given the perennially corrupt modus operandi of the city’s police, and the highly lucrative detente which law enforcement has long maintained with known drug havens around the capital.

As followers of the Indonesian press might already suspect, police raids in Jakarta constitute more of a public relations ruse than an earnest effort to combat drug use.  Without fail, each ‘successful’ raid is widely and jubilantly reported in the press, whilst the unspoken but nonetheless routine practice of officers accepting pay-offs from the city’s most notoriously drug-fuelled night haunts rarely ever results in a prosecution, and rarely begets the attention of the general public.

For Jakarta’s empirically endowed club-goers, however, it’s no big secret that police appearances at such venues are overwhelmingly a spectacle of pre-orchestrated theatre play, in which only a handful bobbies will arrive at a venue having conveniently notified its proprietor in advance. The officers will then strut around the club for a short period of time, during which any drug dealer on premises will temporarily make himself scarce. Once the sham inspection is complete, and the officers have left the building, the drug dealers will be notified – and everything returns to normal. This classically corrupted arrangement, which can be observed in nightclubs all over Jakarta, is terrifically lucrative  for both the venues and the police – the latter of whom will of course take home a handsome kickback as due compensation.

For obvious reasons, there are no official figures by which we can prove that police incursions into Jakarta’s nightclubs are overwhelmingly theatrical, but a quick look at the rare incidence of the police actually catching a drug user in a Jakarta nightclub – relative to the number of people who are allegedly using drugs in the city – should help to demonstrate that an earnest raid is an incredibly exceptional and insignificant part of Jakarta’s club scene, as well as a useless policy measure.

In the same articles, which enthusiastically reported Ahok’s shutdown scheme, some instructive figures from the annals of the National Narcotics Agency were typically tagged on as a sort of postscript at the end of each piece. Most authors opted to flag up last year’s official raid-and-arrest results, (bizarrely as if to suggest that the tactic had been invariably fruitful in the past), informing us that “during 2013, there were 207 attendees [of Jakarta's] night time entertainment venues caught testing positive for drugs. This total was reached following 32 BNN raids on 24 nightclubs throughout the capital.” The latter statistic of course denotes that several of those 24 venues were caught entertaining drug users more than once, perhaps implying that Ahok’s two-strike system is therefore be a reasonable solution. However, the aforementioned figures are essentially statistics taken out of context, if presented without the aid of  the following crucial adjunct.

What none of these articles ventured to point out is that Jakarta is currently home to an estimated 600,000 drug users, (from a nationwide total of 4.6 million), 70 percent of whom are thought to purchase their wares primarily from drug dealers based in the city’s nightclubs. A grand total of 207 arrests in an entire year is therefore nothing but a damning testimony to the extraordinary farce of drug “eradication” in Jakarta, a long-held pretence which has, in practice, reduced the very concept of a raid to little more than an inconvenient overhead in the eyes of the city’s nightclub kingpins. Indeed, if we take the 600,000 figure to be true – although it’s most probably a conservative estimate – then it must be acknowledged that the entirety of last year’s raiding operations managed to accomplish the arrests of only 0.03% of Jakarta’s drug using population. A truly pitiful figure which begs a paradigm shift in approach to drug policy, not merely the addition of another empty, punitive threat.

Given the astonishingly low efficacy of raid-and-arrest campaigns previously employed by the Jakarta police, combined with the ever burgeoning net value of the city’s drug economy, Indonesians shouldn’t be surprised when they discover that Ahok’s touted crackdown was just another case of a high-profile, urbanite politician desperately spouting tough-on-drugs hot air amid the run-up to an election. In reality, the impact of tougher legislation against the use of drugs in Jakarta’s nightclubs is most likely to result in little more than an increased risk premium for the club owners, who will be forced to pay a higher price for their impunity given the more substantial threat of foreclosure. Additionally, Ahok’s crackdown could conceivably precipitate a spike in drug prices for Jakarta’s night time revellers, an unintended consequence which would only serve to heap even greater value on an illicit market which is already grossly inflated and far beyond the control of the state. Most importantly, however, Ahok’s crackdown – even if it were properly enforced – would do little to counteract domestic drug production in Jakarta, which has spread like wildfire in recent years – even finding its way into the city’s prisons.

The ludicrously infeasible nature of Ahok’s plan might be easily distinguished by ordinary Jakartans, if only they were made aware of the dizzying levels of collusion between police and suppliers throughout the city. Widespread corruption of this sort clearly constitutes an insurmountable impediment to any well-meaning scheme designed to rid the city of illegal narcotics – no matter how ambitious or punitive the method.

With this being so, the Jakarta government and its law enforcement agencies should refocus their efforts on the implementation of tried and tested public health-oriented drug policies, which aim to minimise the overall harm caused by drugs to society, rather than setting their sights on the impossible fantasy of a ‘drug-free world’.

Politicians like Ahok would do better to acknowledge that the vast majority of drug use performed in a nightclub environment – even in Jakarta(!) – is not significantly harmful nor dependence-forming, is indulged in by informed adults, and is rationally motivated – primarily by pleasure. To vilify such environments and their patrons, en masse, by way of ‘hard-line’ platitudes purely for short-term political expediency, is both disingenuous and divisive to society at large. Sanctimonious and ideologically-driven pipe dreams, such as the eradication of all (currently illegal) narcotics, ought to be thrown out of the discourse on drug policy immediately – and, believe it or not, it’s politicians like Ahok who largely possess the power and influence required to do just that – if only they didn’t lack the guts.