Academics Come Out in Force Against Indonesia’s Drug Crackdown

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has used his short time in office to enforce a brutal war on drugs. In December 2014, just two months after being sworn in, Widodo declared a state of emergency on drugs and vowed to reject requests for clemency related to drug offenses. The president has acted with chilling efficacy—14 people have been executed for drug-related offenses since he made this pledge.

Now, shocked by the measures taken by the state, a group of academics from Indonesia’s top universities have rallied to stand with civil society experts and call for an evidence-informed response to drugs in Indonesia. This call was published as an open letter in the world’s most prominent medical journal, the Lancet, and received extensive international and local media attention. “As researchers, scientists, and practitioners we have grave concerns the government is missing an opportunity to implement an effective response to illicit drugs informed by evidence,” the group wrote. 

Sadly, Indonesia’s punitive response to drugs is not novel or unusual. Because drug use remains complex, stigmatized, and widely misunderstood in many societies, repression and crackdowns are often used to score political points—even if they don’t yield results. In fact, international research [PDF] shows that punitive law enforcement and criminalization of people who use drugs have failed to reduce the prevalence of drug use, drive people away from services, and help fuel the HIV and hepatitis C epidemics.

In the case of Indonesia, the president’s man-of-the-people popularity plummeted in response to a host of policy missteps that marred his first three months in office. Perhaps policy advisors believed an iron-fist approach to drugs would allow the president to recover some of his lost popularity. Perhaps they decided that drug policy, being both a national and international issue, had the additional benefit of creating space for grandstanding on Indonesian sovereignty (also popular with voters). But in light of the significant backlash, perhaps it is most plausible to suggest there was no strategy at all—just ill-informed advisors.

At an international level, execution of foreign nationals resulted in the unprecedented recall of ambassadors by the Dutch, Brazilian, and Australian governments; condemnation from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; and widespread protests by Indonesian and global civil society.

Among the chaos and violence of the executions is the heartbreaking story of 42-year-old Rodrigo Guilarte, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Just moments before his execution on April 28, Rodrigo turned to his appointed spiritual advisor, Father Charlie Burrows, and asked, “Am I being executed?”

Indonesia’s criminal code contains provisions to protect people with mental illness, specifically prohibiting their prosecution. However, Rodrigo’s legal team was blatantly disregarded.

Most tragically, international attention on Indonesia’s use of the death penalty for drug offenses has overshadowed daily violations flowing from the alleged “state of emergency” on drugs. Advocates are documenting an increase in punitive law enforcement activity in 2015, including raids by the National Narcotics Board—the country’s main anti-drug agency—forced drug testing, detention, compulsory treatment, and other coercive measures, including extortion and pressure on health facilities to disclose personal details and medical records of suspected drug users. A video online shows Narcotics Board officials interrupting the national drug user community congress and asking that members with a history of drug use report their peers for mandatory rehabilitation in return for the equivalent of $20.

The diverse coalition behind the Lancet letter brings new strength to the national discussion on drug policy. Leading the coalition is veteran HIV researcher Professor Irwanto of the HIV/AIDS Research Centre at Atma Jaya University. Professor Irwanto believes the current punitive approach risks frightening drug users away from the treatments they need. “The current drug war approach has been a proven failure around the globe, even causing more harm than good,” he stated.

The open letter welcomes the Widodo government’s commitment to evidence-based policymaking and calls for the government to:

  • scale back punitive strategies that have been found to be counterproductive and expand voluntary harm reduction and drug treatment programs including opioid substitution therapy, needle and syringe programs, HIV treatment, and care for people who use drugs;
  • invest in the collection of better quality data on the scale and nature of drug use in Indonesia, without which an effective and appropriately targeted response cannot be developed; and
  • form an ad hoc, independent committee on drug use comprising relevant national stakeholders including policymakers, academics, practitioners, and drug user community representatives to review available drug-related data, set priorities, recommend evidence-informed actions, and monitor progress.

We, along with the coalition, await a response from President Joko Widodo, and hope for a return to the human rights policies that formed a key part of his election platform. 

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Stop death penalty!

Action should be based on evidence. Harm reduction is a proven and effective strategy

But just what is an effective drug policy? Is there one anywhere?

Yes, there are several good examples of effective drug policies around the world which have had proven success in reducing harms associated with drug use, drug-related criminality, and HIV and Hepatitis C. This includes policies in Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands - just to name a few. More information here: (on Portugal), (on Switzerland), and (the Netherlands).

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting to hear from Joko - he has a habit of not reading documents presented to him!!!
He didn't return Australia's PM's phone calls so with that history a reply is not likely!!
14 lives were shot to pieces as a result of false statistics 14 families left to a lifetime of grief while corrupt police & guards lose their shirts when caught with drugs. Surely those 14 people would have preferred to lose their shirts instead of their lives and being shot through their hearts!!
It's time to stop the death penalty in Indonesia - too late for 14 but in time for dozens of others

The death penalty doesn't stop drug use or trafficking. It is a shame that 14 lives have been used to bolster a weak president's position. Don't let anyone else be used for political purposes.

The terrible and inhuman actions being carried out in Indonesia are a direct result of the malign global influence of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) which criminalizes the use of prescription opioid analgesics and prosecutes and persecutes doctors who prescribe them to patients with chronic non-cancer pain. In the United States alone it is estimated that there are between 50 and 100 million adults with chronic non-cancer pain, most of whom are undertreated or not treated at all. The DEA has failed in its vaunted "War on Drugs" despite hunting all over the world to destroy the production of heroin (an effective analgesic formerly used in the U.K.) and cocaine, and possessors of relatively small amounts of these drugs are given lifetime prison sentences in the U.S. When I recently went to Indonesia on a medical teaching mission as our plane was about to land it was announced that the possession of any opioid drug, whether prescribed by a physician or not, was a crime. It is time that the United Nations and the World Health Organization focus attention on the plight of the millions of persons globally who suffer from unrelieved pain and the importance of relieving that pain. It is also important to produce an informed discussion on the true dangers of illegal drugs and the reasons why so many people, predominantly members of the world "underclass", resort to them. Employing the death penalty for drug use in the 21st century is a gross injustice and a crime against humanity.

The death penalty doesn't stop drug use or trafficking. It is a shame that 14 lives have been used to bolster a weak president's position. Don't let anyone else be used for political purposes.

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