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Indonesia Enforces Stricter Drug Penalties

Desperate times are calling for desperate measures in Indonesia. In a nation already riddled with economic and social obstacles caused by decades of internal conflict, Indonesia’s drug problem is officially spiraling out of control. Not only is the country a primary grounds for the dealing and trafficking of illegal drugs, addiction is widespread, resulting in an increasing number of drug-related fatalities. Authorities are trying everything they can to curb this negative trend, from lengthening jail sentences to converting inmates to Scientology. But are these strategies actually working or causing more harm than good? Read on to find out more.

A ‘national drug state of emergency’

The president of Indonesia has recently declared the country to be in a ‘national drug state of emergency.’ It seems that authorities are trying everything they can to tackle the problem, including implementing new and often extreme penalties for drug related offenses. According to multiple sources, there are over 4.2 million reported drug addicts in Indonesia, accounting for almost 2% of the total population. The government further reports that over thirty people die from drugs each day in Indonesia. In addition to the deaths attributed to overdose, there are the hundreds of deaths as the result of HIV (transmitted among heroin users sharing needles) and drug-related crimes. While drug-related issues have plagued Indonesians for decades, these problems have recently intensified, and this seems to be at least in part a backlash to the intensification of drug penalties in Indonesia.

Liberal enforcement of the death penalty

Indonesia has always been known for its liberal enforcement of the death penalty, and the current president seems almost proud to claim responsibility for a marked increase in the number of criminals and addicts who have recently been executed for committing drug-related crimes. Gaining international media attention, the Bali Nine reminded the international community just how seriously drug offenses are taken in Indonesia.

The Bali Nine is a group of nine Australian citizens who were convicted of smuggling around 18 lbs. of heroin valued at around 3.1 million USD from Indonesia into Australia. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were sentenced to death by firing squad and executed on April 29, 2015 after numerous clemency appeals were rejected by the Indonesian president. Other members of the group were sentenced to life imprisonment, but those sentences were later reduced.

Although shocking at the time, the fate that Chan and Sukumaran was not novel or unexpected for those at all familiar with the Indonesian penal code. In the past, Indonesia has been classified as a ‘low-application state’ in terms of its enforcement of the death penalty for drug offences, but despite this classification, there were still 67 individuals on death row for drug offences as of 2011. It seems the current president is anxious to shed the ‘low-application’ label as he continues to gain international attention for his enforcement of the death by firing squad punishment. Less than two weeks after the execution of Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran, and seven others, President Joko Widodo executed five more foreign drug dealers, four of them at the same spot on Nusakambangan Island.

Overcrowded prisons

An increase in the number of police raids has led to a huge increase in the number of arrests. Subsequently, Indonesian prisons have become immensely overcrowded, sometimes housing up to three times the number of inmates officially allowed. Prisoners in these prisons are often denied basic human rights due to lack of food, water, and space. If these basic needs aren’t being met, we can also be sure that inmates are not able to receive additional services such as opportunities for counselling and recreation.

Strains on the legal system also result in unnecessarily prolonged pre-trial detention periods which leave time for continued abuse, bribery, and other corruptive behavior in prisons. In 2013, a meth lab was discovered inside the jail, and three guards were found to be involved. Somehow this lab was able to be established and exist for some time before being discovered, a testimony to the level of disorder in the prison system.

In addition to drugs being manufactured and exported from prison, drugs also find their way in to satisfy desperate addicts who essentially have nothing to lose. Addicts being supplied with heroin from within prisons, while sharing a limited supply of needles, has led to a rampant spread of tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and HIV among inmates.

Spread of HIV among the general public

HIV is not contained within prisons of course. Steep penalties for drug use have scared many addicts into sharing needles and partaking in high-risk behaviour leading to a sharp increase in the number of Indonesians infected with HIV. Given the country’s already fragile health system, this crisis will surely have a devastating effect on the state of public health, and it is that likely the majority of infected individuals will not be able to receive proper medical care, or even worse, be too scared to go see a doctor and possibly continue to spread the disease to others.

In 2010, HIV prevalence among prisoners who injected drugs was estimated at 12% for women and 8% for men but by January 2012. Only 200 prisoners were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) in Indonesian prisons, a small fraction of the number of those infected.

Addict as criminal

One of the major criticisms of Indonesia’s strong and often fatal response to drugs is the failure to distinguish between criminals and drug addicts or to recognize addicts as people in need of help instead of punishment. The high imprisonment rates of addicts who are battling serious addictions also means that many addicts in prison will not receive proper medical attention for withdrawal symptoms and many die as a result.

Apparently, the laws in Indonesia currently state that if someone is caught with a gram or less of a drug, then they should in fact be sent to rehab, but this is not the case and they are almost always sentenced to prison. An estimated 70% of those imprisoned for drug-related offenses are low-level offenders who would almost certainly benefit more from rehab than from prison, especially given the current level of corruption within the prison system.

Although the United Nations officially has a zero-tolerance approach on drugs, they also publically acknowledge drug dependency as a disease and urge treatment over punishment. Indonesia has officially ratified U.N. sanctions on drug control. However, the country has continued to turn to punitive punishment as its primary means for dealing with the country’s drug problem. As evidenced by continually climbing statistics, this approach has not been effective. The U.N. and a myriad of other international human rights organizations have urged Indonesian authorities to re-examine their current approach and consider a treatment-based philosophy, although at present, this seems unlikely.

So long as addiction is viewed as a social threat more than a health concern, and punished instead of treated, the number of drug users and drug-related crimes will only continue to increase. It seems that the government of Indonesia lacks a basic understanding of the nature of addiction, not realizing that addicts engrossed in poverty, often in a state of depression and desperation, are largely undeterred by punishment, regardless of its severity. If anything, the fear of punishment results in an increase in high-risk behaviour like needle sharing, which will come to affect not only addicts, but society at-large as diseases like HIV and tuberculosis become more prevalent. It is our hope that in the future, Indonesia will heed the advice of the international community and rethink its hardline approach to include more compassionate, treatment-based methods.

To find out more about current drug penalties in Indonesia, read on here.

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