Indonesia Marches Backward on Drug Policy

Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri, faced with rising heroin, methamphetamine, and ecstasy use, as well as rapidly increasing rates of HIV/AIDS infection among the island nation's 230 million inhabitants, has tightened her embrace of a repressive drug war approach to drug policy. In a blistering speech at a national seminar on drugs at the State Palace in Jakarta on October 29, Megawati scolded the country's drug war coordinating agency, the BKNN, for its failure to stop illicit drug use, demanded harsher sentences for drug offenders, recommended the death penalty for some, and suggested the Indonesian military, best known for its brutal efforts to suppress separatist populations in places like East Timor and Aceh province, could be asked to lend a hand against the new foe.

Megawati announced an immediate reshuffling of Indonesia's drug war bureaucracy, ordering the head of the National Intelligence Agency, A.M. Hendropriyono, to take over the coordinating task formerly handled by the BKNN. The latter agency was an earlier child of Megawati's anti-drug crusade, formed at her behest in June 2000 when she was vice-president. Within six months of its formation, however, she had publicly criticized the BKNN for its inability to halt Indonesians' appetites for shabu-shabu (methamphetamine) and ecstasy.

Now, the BKNN will become a sort of Indonesian DEA, Megawati announced. It will have the authority to undertake law enforcement actions against drug offenders, rather than acting as a purely administrative agency, she told the gathering.

Some anti-drug activists are also pushing to amend the country's 1997 laws No. 5/1997 banning psychotropic drugs, such as ecstasy and speed, and No. 22/1997, banning narcotics. Henry Yosodiningrat, chairman of the anti-drug foundation Granat, told the Jakarta Post that a committee reviewing those laws would call for the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences.

Indonesian drug laws provide for sentences of up 20 years for marijuana offenses and for the death penalty in narcotics trafficking or conspiracy cases. But according to local press accounts, most simple ecstasy, methamphetamine, or heroin possession cases result in prison terms ranging from one to five years. According to Agence France Press, last year five men had been sentenced to death for drug crimes, but none had been executed. Earlier this year, a 27-year-old Frenchman received a life sentence for smuggling 3.85 kilos of hashish into the country.

That's not enough for Megawati. During her speech at the State Palace, she voiced her disappointment over light sentences for drug traffickers. "There have been many raids. Some people were arrested, but then released. Or, when they were taken to court, they were also released. Whose fault is this?" she asked, just warming up. "Major offenders, like producers and dealers, should be punished by death. For me, it is better to have a person suffer capital punishment than to see the whole community become addicted to drugs," she said. "Without trying to interfere, I would urge the chief justice and all legal officials to reflect on the dangers of drugs for our children and grandchildren when handing down verdicts."

But Megawati's tough talk and bureaucratic reshuffling notwithstanding, even her supporters remained concerned that the government lacked a clear anti-drug strategy, rendering the effort futile. "Does the National Intelligence Agency have a concept for dealing with the issue?" asked Henry. "We need to sit together and formulate a comprehensive strategy for interdicting the supply, reducing the demand, and providing rehabilitation programs for both the victims and the dealers," he told the Post.

Joyce Djaelani Gordon, program director of the Harapan Permata Hati Kita foundation, a drug rehabilitation organization, called Megawati's changes "a bold move," but also warned the Post that sending people to prison is "useless."

Gordon is part of the one ray of drug policy light in Indonesia: the harm reduction movement, which already has toeholds in Bali and Java, and is growing under the impetus of the rapid increase in HIV/AIDS infection rates among drug injectors. According to Mapping the AIDS Pandemic (MAP), the rate of infection among drug injectors in Indonesia rose from 15percent to 40percent in one year, and the disease is poised to spread into the general population. According to Jakarta-based AIDS activist Chris Green, writing in the Post, the toll from AIDS in Indonesia will reach a million persons. "We may prevent the second and third million if we take urgent action," he wrote.

According to Green, Health Ministry officials are concerned and open to new responses, so Green, Gordon, and other harm reductionists are taking the opportunity to educate about the approach and advocate for the implementation of needle exchange programs to reduce the rate of HIV/AIDS infection. But they are up against a government that has signed regional treaties vowing to be "drug free" and is led by a president prepared to bring the country's drug policy squarely into the last century.

Gordon and Dr. Alex Wodak, head of the International Harm Reduction Association (, responded to that line of thought in a recent Jakarta Post op-ed. "If Indonesia responds by attempting to create a drug-free nation," they wrote, "there will be many unnecessary deaths, much misery, occupied hospital beds and extremely high social and economic costs. A burden Indonesia can do without in the light of its current economic and financial condition. If Indonesia is to avoid such high costs, it must adopt harm reduction strategies immediately. If we respond pragmatically, acknowledging that injecting drug use cannot be eliminated, many of the serious adverse effects of drug use can be minimized."

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's newsletter This Week Online.

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