Indonesia struggles to reform archaic drug policies
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Indonesia struggles to reform archaic drug policies

In March this year, Indonesia’s vice president Boediono bore witness to the signing of a landmark Memorandum of Understanding, which laid down renewed guidelines for the “Processing of Drug Addicts and Drug Abusers into Rehabilitation Centers” (‘Penanganan Pecandu Narkotika dan Korban Penyalahgunaan Narkotika ke dalam Lembaga Rehabilitasi’).

The unusually progressive document sought to prioritise rehabilitation orders over prison sentences for Indonesia’s convicted drug users, and was signed into effect by no less than seven top level national executives, representing the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office and also the National Narcotics Agency (BNN). The MoU was not a piece of legislation in itself, but merely gave some much needed exposure to Indonesia’s 2009 Narcotics Law, the first of its kind to sanction the sentencing of drug users to rehabilitation programs as an alternative to incarceration.

Although sufficiently broad and comprehensive in its provisions, the Narcotics Law failed to gain widespread usage in Indonesia’s courts, largely due to a lack of common purpose and understanding among Indonesia’s vast network of police and prosecutors, who continued to enforce custodial sentences on drug users by way of Indonesia’s much more punitive Article 112.

The Narcotics Law makes clear, however, that in all cases when a convicted drug user cannot additionally be proven to be a dealer, trafficker or producer, a rehabilitation-based sentence should be applied. This default position was clarified and reiterated by the signing of the MoU in March, and was widely publicised in the Indonesian press. Media commentators of diverse political affiliations invariably heaped praise on the progressive document, including an article on Boediono’s own personal website, which spoke of a “paradigm shift” toward a “more humane” treatment of Indonesia’s drug users.

The move to get drug users out of Indonesia’s prisons and into rehabilitation centres is undoubtedly a commendable and progressive one, especially so when one considers Indonesia’s usual infamy with regards to its prosecution of drug crimes. Indeed, in spite of recent steps forward at the user-level of the drug trade, Indonesia remains one of only a handful of countries in the world to still uphold the death penalty for convicted traffickersincluding foreign nationals—a truly merciless ‘solution’ as well as an enduring item of censure among human rights advocates, who maintain that such killings constitute a direct violation of international law.

The recent inception of at least one national drug policy that is largely predicated on notions of public health and pragmatism, rather than old-fashioned adherence to punitive retribution, is therefore a welcome development from a harm reduction perspective. However, the resultant discourse of victimhood and rehabilitation that this unprecedented shift has spawned, is unmistakably fraught with untenable falsehoods and oblivious fallacies. As such, the sum total of these misconceptions threatens to undermine the non-incarceration scheme altogether.

As an analytical starting point, it is worth pointing out that the 2009 Narcotics Law has not, contrary to Boediono’s estimations, given rise to a “paradigm shift” in Indonesia’s drug policy. The widespread acceptance of rehabilitation as a more worthwhile recompense for convicted drug users is merely a common sense measure, which has admittedly transformed at least one aspect of a much wider discourse, but has not affected the fundamental tenets of that discourse or its intrinsic goals.

Indonesia’s drug policy, like that of most Southeast Asian nations at present, is still premised on a rigid and uncompromising adherence to wholesale prohibition, and remains anchored to a woefully unrealistic end goal—namely the “eradication” (‘pemberantasan’) of all currently illegal drugs. Indeed, these two unshakable twin pillars constitute the very rasion d’etre of global drug policy at present, and have done so for the last five decades.

Ironically, this entrenched discursive framework, within which drug policy has evolved in Indonesia, is still very much attuned to the antiquated 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. With the aid of some classic 60’s hyperbole, the Single Convention presents the issue of drugs and drug policy as both an existential threat to “mankind,” and an essential triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil.’

To quote the convention’s preamble briefly, the signing parties consent to the opinion that “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind.” With this apparently being so, the signing parties therefore bravely and hypocritically accept their self-bestowed “duty to prevent and combat this evil” through an all-out eradication of most narcotic substances, with the notable exception of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine etc.—all addictive substances, to varying degrees, in their own right.

Looking back from our present perspective, it is not difficult to see that the continued persistence of global drug prohibition has much to do with the debate being camped, from the outset, in these utterly unedifying and polarising terms: good vs. evil, the health of mankind vs. his inevitable ruination etc.

Crucially, the wording of the Single Convention admits no possibility of plain and simple, non-problematic recreational drug use—which is by far the most prevalent form of illicit drug use. The document makes a point of authorising the use of certain narcotics for medical and scientific purposes only, whilst all other conceivable interactions between human beings and “illicit substances” are summarily condemned as instances of either “drug abuse” or “drug addiction.”

This rather unforgiving taxonomy ensures that there can be no such thing—in theory—as sensible or non-problematic use of narcotics, and thereby gives rise to the still widely held belief—especially in Indonesia—that there is something inherently degenerate and morally objectionable about all forms of illicit drug use (beyond their obvious illegality). Accordingly, the Single Convention therefore demands that any member of “mankind” wild enough to dabble in illicit narcotics shall be required to obtain criminal conviction, followed by “rehabilitation” and “social reintegration” at the very least—if not languish in prison.

Without having to dig too deeply, we can clearly see that the emergent discourse of victimhood and rehabilitation in Indonesia is still strongly reflective of the good vs. evil duality outlined in the 53-year-old Single Convention. For one thing, policymakers up to the very highest level in Indonesia seem to be united in the belief that failure to win the ‘war on drugs’ will likely lead to such damning scenarios as a “lost generation”, the need to “save the nation by eradicating narcotics,” or the need to “overcome narcotics for the future of the nation’s children.”

Once again, couching the debate in these emotionally-charged terms largely precludes rational, disinterested discussion, and pre-empts  more compelling (and truly paradigm threatening) talk of wholesale decriminalisation or regulation of illegal drugs, which can easily be shot down as a Trojan vehicle for anarchy, evil, degeneracy and national treachery. The comfortable encampment of the prohibitionists on the discursive side of ‘good’ thereby obtains baseless justification for the policies and sentiments which this encampment generates, and, by extension, vilifies the anti-prohibitionists with apparent ease.

Although undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the discourse of victimhood and rehabilitation in Indonesia remains blighted by a moralised and misguided notion of illegal drug use, which blindly assumes that anyone and everyone who ventures to dabble in illegal substances is automatically in desperate need of “social reintegration” of some sort.

In reality, drug consumption of both the licit and illicit types exists on a broad spectrum of possible usages and outcomes: from beneficial, to non-problematic, to problematic and finally chronic/dependent. At present, however, Indonesia’s drug policy and its surrounding discourse makes no effort to recognise the discrepancies between these varying types of drug use, and it is precisely this style of ignorance that will steer the rehabilitation scheme towards an inevitable failure.

To further demonstrate my prediction here, I point to three key terms that are flung around willy-nilly in the Indonesian media—both by reporters and policymakers. In ascending order of importance these are: drug user (‘pengguna narkoba’), drug abuser (‘penyalahguna narkoba’), and drug addict (‘pecandu narkoba’).

The first two terms are used more or less interchangeably, and both carry identical connotations of disparagement and contempt, softened only by a token measure of sympathy for the user as a ‘victim’ of a higher crime, namely drug dealing. The third and most significant term, ‘drug addict,’ is wheeled out disproportionately less often, is less derisory, and of course yields a much greater degree of victimhood. At face value, however, little explanation is offered as to what each term actually means, or what kind of behaviour distinguishes the user, from the abuser, from the addict, and vice versa.

This oblique and misleading taxonomy is little more helpful than that which is prescribed in the outdated Single Convention. In fact, the only observable difference in rhetoric is the pointless addition of the term ‘drug user’ (‘pengguna narkoba’), which is invariably used to the same effect as ‘drug abuser’ (‘penyalahguna narkoba’). Essentially, according to the terms of March’s MoU, a ‘drug user’ is equally as deserving of coercive rehabilitation and “social reintegration” as a ‘drug abuser’ or ‘drug addict’ of any degree.

The taxonomy sketched out above is of course nonsensical, but the feasibility of the wider rehabilitation scheme is arguably even more farfetched than the theory that underpins it. As I have written previously for, Indonesia is currently home to an estimated 4.6million drug users, yet the entire nation can currently boast of only a paltry 350 functioning rehab centres—at the service of 240 million citizens.

So, if the penitentiary system is already buckling under the weight of only 60,000 drug users, and rehabilitation centres are in such short supply—to say nothing of the quality of their services—then how does the Indonesian government plan to ‘rehabilitate’ the remaining several million drug users, who haven’t yet had the misfortune of being caught in the act.

Such an attempt at a blanket rehabilitation of Indonesia’s entire drug using population is not only totally unnecessary, but is also practically impossible. Fallacious talk of a “paradigm shift” in drug policy no doubt scores political expediency for Indonesia’s already beleaguered, distrusted and dysfunctional authorities, but will do nothing to further their fantastical vision of a ‘drug-free world,’ nor improve their current position in the futile ‘war on drugs.’ ­­­­­