Health - Indonesia Considers Radical War On Drugs
Indonesia has a drug problem. With an estimated 4.5 million addicts and an estimated 33 fatal overdoses per day, according to National Narcotics Agency, officials are looking at outlandish and draconian penalties to combat a national emergency. These include prisons surrounded by tigers, crocodiles, and piranhas, and forcing drug dealers to use their own products until they die.
"We need to be serious because drugs are the enemy," says National Narcotics Agency spokesman Slamet Pribadi.
Indonesia's drug penalties are already harsh, just look at the Bali 9 case: Two executions, six life sentences, and one 20-year prison term. Every week, low-level drug criminals - dealers and users- are paraded before the media with the contraband law enforcement captured. Despite not making any headway through the tough approach, the government believes more needs to be done to deter local drug use.
This is creating a climate of fear among drug users, who are turning to sharing syringes rather than risk being caught by police carrying their own. Not coincidentally, HIV infection rates are rising.
"We'll be facing the next HIV outbreak if this doesn't change," says Suhendro Sugiharto, an outreach worker with the Indonesian Drug Users Network, an advocacy group that favors treatment programs with proven records of success. But locating and helping addicts is becoming more difficult, because the police-oriented approach is driving addicts underground.
"It's creating difficulty for the outreach worker to give away clean needles and also to collect used needles," added Mr. Suhendro, "And it has put us in danger of an HIV epidemic."
Up to 70 percent of Indonesia's total prison population are low-level drug offenders, because the laws don't adequately distinguish between users and dealers.
"Our laws criminalize the victim," says attorney Rudhy Wedhasmara who often represents poor addicts, pro bono. "Prison is no solution as they remain addicted," he added.
While Indonesia continues the same behavior in hopes of achieving different results, real-world evidence shows pretty conclusively that treating drug addiction as a health issue is a much more effective strategy. Malaysia drastically reduced HIV rates by deploying social workers armed with sterile needles, condoms, and screw caps in areas where drug users congregate. As a result, HIV infections in Kelantan state dropped to 277 in 2014, compared with more than 1,200 before the program started.
"We needed this program, and we needed it to be quick," said Dr Ilias Adam Yee, executive director of the Malaysian AIDS Council. "The epidemic was blowing up."
One of the most famous examples of a forward-thinking drug policy is Portugal, which in 2001 did the exact opposite of what Indonesia is doing and became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. At the time, hand-wring social conservatives warned the country would become a Mecca for drug tourists, and the problem would just get worse. The opposite happened.
Illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined. Rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped. And with the stigma and fear of arrest gone, the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.
"Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," said journalist Glenn Greenwald, who compiled a report on the Portuguese experiment for a libertarian think tank in 2009. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."