Police and Customs officers display confiscated drugs from a bust at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Banten last year. (Antara Photo/Aprillio Akbar)

The Time Has Come for Indonesia to Decriminalize Drugs

BY :RICKY GUNAWAN, WILL DORAN

FEBRUARY 11, 2020

In late January, three members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, or GCDP, traveled to Jakarta to discuss sustainable development and advancing Indonesian drug policy. The visiting commissioners consisted of the former president of Switzerland and chair of the GCDP, Ruth Dreifuss, the former prime minister and president of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta, and the former premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop. 

The trio, who met with civil servants, NGOs and government officials during their three-day visit, exchanged views on Indonesia's drug laws and policies and shared ideas on how to move forward. The visit culminated with a public forum held at Atma Jaya Catholic University, where the commissioners offered their insights, drawn from their own experiences, on implementing successful drug policy reform, including drug decriminalization.

Dreifuss discussed how she helped administer change during her tenure as both Minister of Home Affairs and President of Switzerland during the 1990s-2000s. Stressing the importance of evidence-based treatment and prevention, instead of criminalization, she highlighted how the original goals of drug policies were to eradicate the production of drugs, extinguish the consumption of drugs and defeat organized crime.

The "war on drugs," however, failed to achieve its intended objective and only resulted in the opposite: larger production of drugs, an increase in consumers of drugs, the global phenomenon of mass incarceration and organized crime holding more power than previously before. The only way to change this course, she said, is to stop treating drugs as a criminal justice issue, and begin treating it as a public health matter. Indonesia would benefit greatly from this approach.

Ramos-Horta said it is written in his country’s Constitution that there would be no death penalty, much less for drug traffickers or users. Similarly, the maximum sentence for any crime is 25 years. With relatively relaxed borders and an inclusive society, Timor- Leste never became a drug paradise like some predicted.

In stark comparison, Indonesia, like many countries in Asia, has draconian punishments for drug offenses, including the death penalty. Out of 369 death row prisoners in Indonesia, 230 are awaiting execution on drug charges. Moreover, of all the people executed during President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration, all 18 have been for drug offenses.

Capital punishment for drug offenses is just one of the many regressive and antagonistic policies that currently dominates the rhetoric and perspective toward drugs in Indonesia. It is time for this to change.

Geoff Gallop, who ran on a platform of cannabis decriminalization during his run for premier in 2001, noted that one of the most vocal and supportive groups of his policy change was, in fact, the police. The police are the enforcers of a country's drug laws, after all. They are witnesses to a peculiar Groundhog Day effect in a war on drugs: everytime a drug dealer is arrested, another one would spring up.

This overwhelming police support can serve as a catalyst for decriminalization in Indonesia. It's time to open a dialogue with police forces to find ways to effectuate change that would benefit law enforcement and society as a whole.

Drawing from the GCDP's depth of knowledge and experience in drug policy reform, there are a few possible solutions for Indonesia to address its so-called "drug emergency situation."

First, Indonesia needs to decriminalize drug use and possession for personal consumption. People who use drugs need access to treatment and support, not prison and isolation. Criminalization discourages people who use drugs to seek help. Criminalization will only end with overcrowding prisons, which in turn leads to large scale human rights abuses, including the targeting and marginalization of youth and women.

Criminalization shifts the drug scene from the general population to prison, thereby creating a market inside the prison. Criminalization also fuels corruption further because illicit drug trafficking continues to take place despite its prohibition. Criminalization, in short, harms the society and benefits the syndicate.

Further, women are disproportionately treated more harshly for drug-related offenses. Even more aggravating is that sometimes the accused women do not even know they are transporting drugs, as their partners or spouses may have secretly stashed them. Other times women are coerced into transporting drugs.

Similar to the arrests of young people, these arrests and prison sentences for women on drug-related charges lead to heavy stigmatization upon release back into society. One commentator lamented the stigma that follows them is the real death penalty.

Second, Indonesia needs to remedy its atavistic drug policies. Developing robust data on health, crime and punishment should be the utmost priority.

This may sound obvious and even trite, but it's increasingly difficult to find hard data, polls and statistics from unbiased or non-partisan sources.

Much of the scant available data in Indonesia gets lost in the bureaucratic web of departments and ministries. One report may say x, while the other claims y. A working and successful drug policy should be based on, and requires, credible data, instead of fear and myths.

Third, Indonesia must reorient its drug policy into a matter of public health since criminal and punitive approaches to deal with drugs have been proven to fail. This way, it will involve the healthcare and medical industry in a more significant and effective manner.

Professionals in these industries could become the catalyst for drug policy reform in the very near future. Doctors, physicians, psychologists, scientists and outreach workers will be some of the first persons called upon to testify what drug decriminalization could mean for the Indonesian public. It is imperative to have them informed, engaged and ready to act.

Drug decriminalization in Indonesia will be a major step toward righting the wrongs that have been committed throughout Indonesia's "war on drugs." While some people are skeptical about decriminalizing drugs, it is important to understand that it is not legalization. Decriminalization involves the removal of criminal penalties for drug consumption and possession for personal use.

Decriminalization will be equipped with provisions that feature a strong system of voluntary and evidence-based drug treatment. Decriminalization does not mean that more people will be addicted to drugs, or that there will be a rise in drug crimes, or that Indonesia will turn into an anarchic state.

Rather, research shows it is quite the opposite. Decriminalizing drugs means there will no longer be stigmas associated with people who use drugs. It means more money will be saved since prison population will decrease. It also means freeing up law enforcement to focus on more serious and organized crimes. And most importantly, drug decriminalization means saving, not ruining, lives.

Those are things that all Indonesians should support. Let reason guide the government's drug policies, not prejudice.

Ricky Gunawan is the director of LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid or LBHM). Will Doran is an intern at LBHM who recently finished his master's degree at The School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.

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