Indonesia’s Growing Narcotics Problem

Last July Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo echoed the Philippines’ murderous chief executive Rodrigo Duterte, saying police should shoot drug traffickers on sight to deal with what Jokowi, as the president is known, termed a narcotics emergency facing the country.

That is an anti-drug tactic that has been condemned universally by the United Nations and the rest of the international community and earned Duterte an investigation by the International Criminal Court, which he has defied. It has also proven to be ineffective.

Nonetheless, increased narcotics use is worrying, not just in Indonesia but across the nations that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, East Asia and Australia as well. Amphetamine Type Stimulant (ATS) drug circulation has continued to increase in the region throughout 2017. Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODOC) say crystal meth is now the greatest illicit threat facing the country.

Known in Indonesia as “shabu shabu,” crystal methamphetamine usage has expanded exponentially. Authorities in February seized a record 1.6 tonnes off a ship near the island of Batam, a few kilometers across the Malacca Strait from Singapore, the second major bust in a month. Officials confiscated another tonne earlier in February.

The increased drug trafficking and high demand mean money. Narcotics and ecstasy, another popular drug, are not inexpensive in Indonesia. Only Japan, New Zealand, and Australia are more expensive. Despite the high price, demand has pushed up the amount of drugs being circulated in Indonesia constantly higher. A recent raid in Anyer, Banten, a coastal town on the Sunda Strait, confiscated a full tonne in 2017.

The mathematics of drug use are depressing. One tonne (1,000,000 grams) of meth would satisfy a million users if the user consumed one gram a month. Two grams a month would take care of 500,000. With 5 tonnes seized since last July that would satisfy 2.5 million Indonesians for a month.

Indonesia already has some of the world’s toughest drug laws, and Jokowi has shown little compunction – nor did his predecessors – about using them. In 2015 and 2016, 18 convicted drug smugglers were executed by firing squad, earning the country international condemnation. They appear to do little good. Indonesia’s National Narcotics Board estimated in 2016 that there were at least five million people using drugs of all types in Indonesia. The country is considered by international authorities to have the biggest drug problem in Southeast Asia.

While drug seizures and police raids make the headlines, they do little to curb drug use. Demand reduction – educating the young against drug use – is crucial if there is to be any permanent success in the fight against drugs. Demand diminishes when the public is aware that drugs are dangerous to themselves, the family, and the young generation. However, the country has not devoted nearly enough resources or funds to anti-drug education.

Certainly, despite Jokowi’s promise to shoot users and purveyors on sight, there is no evidence that such draconian deterrence has any effect on drug use, trafficking or production. In the months following executions of January and April 2015, the number of drug-related crimes in Indonesia reportedly increased. In both Thailand and the Philippines, which have tried all-out drug wars leading to the deaths of thousands of people, drug demand has remained high.

In Thailand in 2016, Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya said his ministry was consulting with relevant agencies over a proposal to exclude ya ba, as methamphetamines are known in Thailand, from the list of illegal narcotics. They are the Thai equivalent of the Philippines’ most ubiquitous illegal narcotic, colloquially known as shabu, a methamphetamine in pill, crystal or powder form that can be ingested, inhaled or injected, It ia known as shabu shabu in Indonesia.

Paiboon noted that decades of waging war against narcotics had been a failure. Usage had actually increased, he said. In the case of ya ba, he said, ending its illegal status would encourage addicts to come forward for treatment, adding that medical evidence showed ya ba to be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco – both readily available, socially accepted substances.

Other countries including Portugal and the Netherlands have decriminalized the possession of certain drugs and launched major public health campaigns to tackle addiction. In both, experience has shown that it is much more important to break the link between drugs and crime and to provide rehabilitation and medical care for those who seek to break their addiction.

It is also necessary to increase the security on Indonesia’s seas. The Strait of Malacca in the western part of Indonesia and the Celebes Sea on the eastern side have been the usual pathway for smugglers for hundreds of years. From 2015 to this year, BNN and Polri have carried out numerous measures towards drug-smuggling cases through these sea lanes.

Tonnes of drugs entering Indonesia, either through the Riau Islands or through the western lanes of Sumatra, reportedly originate from Myanmar. The seas thus become the point of transaction with the ship-to-ship system to break the chain.

The situation of illicit drug trafficking is directly proportional to the way drug enforcement is carried out. BNN and Polri will keep harvesting smuggling and illicit drug trafficking. Drug use is likely to remain high in Indonesia because a market has been formed.

Meanwhile, law enforcers still face the same situation – the existence of law enforcement agencies involved in some of the drug cases. Many sent to prison remain engaged in the drug business from inside with the tacit permission of crooked authorities, which means policies for drug eradication remain unchanged.

To assess the performances of Polri or BNN in the context of drug eradication, the number of drug cases captured can be a measurement. The figures presented are the number of cases, suspects, and evidence. By late 2017, BNN had captured 58,365 drug suspects, a dramatic rise when compared to 2016 (1,238 suspects). The numbers in crime cases are not independent and can be associated with various factors, such as the seriousness of officers in uncovering drug cases. That number is also a problem for prisons. Not to mention the added number apprehended.

Certainly, what will be required is a comprehensive, cooperative effort. The situation has not found any solution to date. Efforts are also needed to weaken the drug network through the confiscation of money and assets from the drug business, including funds sent abroad. Thus, confiscating drug money could be an effective partial solution to end this worrying situation.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat writes frequently on Indonesian social and economic issues.