On May 1, just one week after vice governor Ahok announced unprecedented plans to foreclose any Jakarta nightlife venue twice caught harbouring drug-induced patrons, I called what I thought was Ahok’s fantastical bluff, suggesting that “Indonesians should not be surprised when they discover that [the] 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”.
Three weeks later, and the unthinkable has happened. Stadium—the long-standing jewel in the crown of Jakarta’s electronic music scene—has been shut down with immediate effect, and with this tragic loss I am forced to concede that Ahok’s crackdown is far from idle talk. The vice governor has truly declared war on Jakarta’s drug-friendly night haunts, and this is without doubt a colossal step in the wrong direction for Indonesia’s already chaotic drug policy, which currently incorporates a disorderly melange of forced rehabilitation for users, death penalty for traffickers, and now instant licence revocation for permissive venues.
The much greater tragedy underlying Stadium’s foreclosure is of course the unexpected death of a 22-year-old, Sulawesi-born police officer, Jicky Vay Gumerung, who passed away after taking a combination of ecstasy and methamphetamine when off-duty with three other colleagues. Following Gumerung’s abrupt fatality, Jakarta’s authorities suddenly ‘discovered’ that Stadium was indeed remarkably involved in the trafficking and retailing of illegal narcotics. This farcical ‘discovery’ is rather long overdue, considering it’s been an open secret for almost 17 years that illegal drugs are sold freely on premises at Stadium—an arrangement to which the city’s police have long been happy to turn a blind eye.
So what’s changed?
It seems to me that the usual hypocrisy and duplicity of the Indonesian police has been rendered untenable in the wake of such a high-profile death of one of its own functionaries, just weeks after Ahok’s grand unveiling of the ambitious shutdown scheme. At face value, Gumerung’s passing therefore presents something of a PR disaster for Indonesia’s already beleaguered law enforcement agencies, whose corrupt practices have long been the object of rightful contempt across the archipelago. Highly lucrative and institutionalised corruption—such as the bribery which helped to keep Stadium emphatically in business for no less than 17 hedonistic years—has ensured that Indonesian law enforcement remains a bastion of scathing disrepute among much of the public, and rightly so.
With this in mind, we should therefore be wary of the smug and self-aggrandizing tone of the ‘Stadium’s gone forever’ pronouncements currently stemming from the authorities. Instead of accepting at face value the condemnation of both Gumerung’s actions and Stadium’s permissive attitude towards drug use from certain figures in the police and the Jakarta government, I suggest that such ‘outrage’ can be more usefully interpreted as a guilt-ridden, kneejerk, PR-driven damage limitation campaign, waged by an establishment aware of its own infamy.
If not dealt with meticulously by the Greater Jakarta Police Public Relations Department (‘Bidang Hubungan Masyarakat Polda Metro Jaya’), the Gumerung tragedy might have precipitated an extraordinary corruption scandal with enough scope to implicate many top-level law enforcement figures. Indeed, the main reason that Gumerung’s off-duty death is such a terribly ironic tale is that Stadium would have been unable to flourish and unable to retail drugs with such impunity (and for such a long period of time) if it wasn’t for the vital complicity of the city’s police—including those among much higher ranks than Gumerung himself—who have been aware of the venue’s institutionalised vice trades from the outset. The unfortunate death of an officer who frequented and probably purchased drugs from the illicit narco-den which the police helped to create and maintain has, not surprisingly, left the authorities scrambling for a ‘tough’ retaliation that can also simultaneously cover their tracks.
This has so far been achieved to great effect through police utilisation of a docile media, whose functionaries have been happy to proliferate the moral outcry engendered by Gumerung’s overdose, and accompany such reportage with explosive ‘revelations’ pertaining to Stadium’s drug-friendly hedonism. This grossly unedifying campaign of shock-horror sensationalism has enabled Jakarta’s hopelessly corrupt police to keep the greater part of the flak off their own backs, and re-focus it firmly on the behaviour of the ‘sinful’ participants in Jakarta’s burgeoning narcotics economy.
Paradoxically, Indonesian media outlets have not at all hesitated to admit the longevity of Stadium’s drug-fuelled hijinks, happily touting the 17 years of impunity which the venue has enjoyed. But for some reason which remains a mystery to myself, there has been no demand for prosecutions of law enforcement figures clearly complicit in Stadium’s criminal dealings. Surely the greatest ‘revelation’ of the Stadium saga—for those who didn’t already know it—ought to be the fact that Jakarta’s authorities have proactively permitted and enabled hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of revellers, to purchase, share and consume illegal drugs on Stadium’s premises, thus empowering an illicit industry and enriching a shady criminal syndicate somewhere behind-the-scenes—much to the detriment of both state power and the integrity of Indonesia’s brutal drug laws.
Alas, however, the hysterical nature of Indonedia’s current drug policy discourse, and the state’s vice-like grip on its content criteria, has ensured that sensational reportage with headlines such as “RIP Stadium: Haven for forbidden pleasures”, or “‘Outrageous’ Stadium Nightclub to Shut After Police Death: Basuki”, can safely divert readers’ attention away from the corrupt and futile police practices that have engendered much of Jakarta’s vice industries, so that our heartfelt concerns can be chaperoned, streamlined and transmuted into passive support for a delusionary moral crusade against all (currently illegal) narcotics—which represents the very essence of Indonesia’s drug policy at present, and also underpins the precarious feasibility of Ahok’s shutdown scheme.
Alternatively, let’s just imagine, just for a second, how different a spiel readers could have been be offered if each of the articles that reported Gumerang’s tragic passing also ran with an enlightening, sensible and truly informative qualification, something along the lines of: “Stadium has been in business for 17 years, putatively with the backing of Jakarta’s law enforcement agencies, who were paid to turn a blind eye. The vast majority of Stadium’s clientele, although they may occasionally dabble in illegal narcotics, are otherwise ordinary and law-abiding citizens, whose drug use poses little harm to their own lives and even scantier harm to society at large. By far the drug of choice among Stadium’s voluminous patrons was MDMA, more commonly known as ecstasy, a substance which has no association with intravenous use or addiction, nor the accompanied societal damage—such as blood-borne disease proliferation, acquisitive crime and disorderly behaviour—which these two types of problematic drug use undoubtedly represent. In short, Stadium’s electronic music lovers and its ecstasy-partial fan club will be deeply aggrieved by both Gumerang’s death and the closing of their favourite dancehall.”
This is perhaps the more realistic style of reportage to which we might be accustomed within the framework of an honest, sensible and rational drug policy debate, one that respected an individual’s right to indulge—without threat of criminal sanction—in the use of narcotic substances, but nonetheless acknowledged the grave dangers inherent in certain types of problematic drug use. Unfortunately, however, blanket prohibition of all (currently illegal) drugs remains the default position of not only Indonesia’s political leaders and law enforcement agencies, but also the broader media-scape of editors and journalists, the majority of whom have obediently toed the police PR line with their sanctimonious and faux-‘outraged’ condemnation of Stadium’s famous hedonism.
Whilst not disputing or demeaning the tragic nature of Gumerang’s passing, I firmly believe that drug calamities such as these ought to galvanise our efforts towards harm reduction and safer use of illict substances in general, rather than add fuel to the fire of reckless and belligerent prohibitionists like Ahok, who seek to vilify all illicit drug use—without any resort to nuance, exception or empirical evidence—for reasons of both political expediency and ignorant moral dogmatism.
Ahok may have obliterated Jakarta’s most iconic nightclub within weeks of initiating his crackdown, but rest assured he is ultimately bound to fail; not least because police corruption still plagues Indonesia to an astonishing degree, but also because destroying the venues where only a small portion of illegal drugs are currently consumed will not affect the production, supply or demand for those drugs in Indonesia in the long-term. As many observers have commented following Stadium’s foreclosure, drug users will simply go somewhere else to take drugs, and will probably end up purchasing them from the same criminal syndicates who previously supplied to Stadium.
What we ought to fear much more so than drug use itself is the influence of militant radicals like vice governor Ahok, clamouring over a ludicrous end-goal which is irrefutably beyond realistic possibility. Indonesians will continue to take drugs regardless of the laws that be, so why not help them to do it as safely as possible before we end up with more needless deaths such as Gumerung’s. The ‘drug-free world’ is a dangerous pipe dream that puts citizens’ health in grave danger, time and time again. It’s time to start thinking realistically about drug users and drug policy.