Maidina Rahmawati – Police involvement in the illicit drug market is in the headlines again, after recently installed East Java Police Chief Teddy Minahasa was arrested on 14 October for allegedly trafficking confiscated methamphetamine.
Teddy is accused of ordering a subordinate to replace a portion of confiscated methamphetamine with aluminium sulphate, and then selling on the confiscated narcotics. Teddy reportedly received up to Rp 300 million (A$30,000) per kilogram. According to public reports on the wealth and assets of state officials (LHKPN), Teddy is the richest police officer in Indonesia. He has since been removed from the East Java police chief position.
At least three similar allegations of police involvement in drug trafficking have been recorded this year, involving individuals from the Karawang District Police (West Java), Rokan Hilir District Police (Riau) and Jeneponto District Police (South Sulawesi). Police – some of the most outspoken proponents of the "war on drugs" – are seemingly profiting from the illicit drug trade.
The harmful effects of the 'war on drugs'
Allegations of police involvement in the drug trade are nothing new and have circulated for years. Before his execution in 2014, drug "kingpin" Freddy Budiman claimed he had transferred Rp 450 billion to the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) and Rp 90 billion to individuals at the National Police Headquarters to facilitate his drug businesses.
The narcotics business can be incredibly lucrative. Freddy once said he could sell a single ecstasy pill for Rp 200,000-300,000, from a cost of just Rp 5,000. In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the global industry involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances that are subject to drug prohibition laws was estimated to be worth US$32 billion.
Much of this high value is a result of the war on drugs. Prices are increased to reflect the difficulty of illegally transporting drugs and the cost of bribing officials. As the market is not subject to government control and standardisation, manufacturers can produce narcotics with the cheapest raw materials available, with the focus on maximising profits rather than user safety.
People who use drugs as victims
The Indonesia Judicial Research Society (IJRS) published a report earlier this year that examined 1,535 cases involving Law No. 35 of 2009 on Narcotics between 2016-2020. Only 18% of these cases involved drug traffickers, and an even smaller proportion still (12.9%) were considered major dealers or kingpins.
In fact, the research found that as many as 40.6% of defendants were people who use drugs, convicted for very small amounts of narcotics. Most drugs cases related to methamphetamine, and 38.8% of methamphetamine cases involved less than 1 gram of the drug.
These findings underscore the hollowness of the so-called war on drugs, given that so many of the cases involved imprisoning people in possession of tiny amounts of narcotics.
The IJRS study also found that an extraordinary 92.3% of drug defendants received a prison sentence. In fact, recent data suggests that more than half the inmates in Indonesia's chronically overcrowded prisons were convicted on drugs charges, and three quarters of these were people who use drugs – not traffickers. Meanwhile, police officers who are caught using drugs are just given "education and training".
In other words, the war on drugs means people who use drugs are the usual victims – not only of drug traffickers but also corrupt officers.
Under Indonesia's Law No. 35 of 2009 on Narcotics, people who use drugs are eligible to receive medical and social rehabilitation. But there is growing evidence that access to rehabilitation is transactional, with police allegedly threatening to subject individuals to the full criminal process unless they pay bribes. In an article published by Project Multatuli in August 2022, for example, people accused of drug offences reported that police offered that they could pay a fee to be released, a practice police referred to as an "86".
Lack of police accountability
In addition to these problems with alleged extortion, there are also frequent reports of entrapment, with drugs allegedly placed on individuals to secure a conviction.
Likewise, police and BNN investigators have the authority to conduct undercover purchase and transfer of drugs to investigate distribution networks. But police often use this authority to blackmail people who use drugs and small-time dealers, without focusing on the major distributors.
BNN has issued technical guidelines (Perka BNN No. 3 and 4 of 2011) on the use of these undercover powers, but the guidelines cannot be accessed by the public. The limited BNN reporting that is available does not allow for any means of real accountability regarding the use of these powers either. The police, meanwhile, do not appear to have any such internal guidelines, and certainly do not publish any reports on their use of undercover tactics.
There is also a lack of clarity around confiscation and destruction of narcotics. According to the Narcotics Law, it is the Prosecutor's Office that has the power to destroy narcotics (Article 91). But a Police Chief Regulation on Restorative Justice (Perkap No. 8 of 2021) also allows police investigators to destroy narcotics without the involvement of other institutions. This lack of clarity leaves a window open for illegal re-selling by police, as allegedly occurred in Teddy Minahasa's case.
A further concern relates to the fact that the Narcotics Law allows BNN investigators to arrest individuals suspected of drug offences and hold them for up to six days (Article 76). This contrasts with the Criminal Procedure Code (KUHAP), which limits the period of arrest during the preliminary investigation stage to just 24 hours (although the investigation stage allows for detention for up to 60 days and police regularly detain people for the full 60 days).
Prolonged pretrial detention, common for narcotics offences, provides opportunities for extortion, and there are suggestions that police use violence or the threat of violence to extract bribes.
The independent National Police Commission (Kompolnas) has said that the problem of police involvement in the illicit drug trade was caused by poor police monitoring and oversight. While internal control is certainly lacking, there are also fundamental problems with the Narcotics Law and the KUHAP that have allowed this situation to develop.
Decriminalisation of drug use
There is growing international consensus that laws on the control of drugs must follow a public health perspective that focuses on the right to health of people who use drugs. As the Indonesian example shows, criminalisation of even minor drug use can result in high rates of imprisonment, discrimination and torture, and means people who use drugs often have to pay bribes just to obtain their right to rehabilitation and treatment.
More than 30 countries have now implemented policies to decriminalise personal use of drugs. Earlier this month, the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise small amounts of drugs including marijuana but also speed, heroin and cocaine.
It is time to seriously consider introducing decriminalisation reforms in Indonesia, and it is a good sign that revisions to the 2009 Narcotics Law are now being discussed by Indonesia's national legislature (DPR). While there is major resistance to efforts to relax drug laws, there is also growing recognition among some lawmakers that harsh criminalisation of personal drug use has not delivered results.
It is important to understand that decriminalisation is not the same as legalising drugs. Rather, it no longer treats drug possession and personal use as a criminal offence, and instead directs people who use drugs toward treatment and harm reduction services.
The benefits of decriminalisation are many. It will reduce the enormous numbers of people arrested, tried and imprisoned. That would help reduce severe prison overcrowding and free up funds that can be diverted to public health initiatives. It would also reduce the stigma on people who use drugs, and decrease the prevalence of drug-related diseases like HIV.
And it could provide police with more time and resources to focus on major drug traffickers and organised crime, and improve relations between law enforcement and the community.
Drug decriminalisation is not necessarily associated with increases in the use of drugs. But decriminalisation policies must always be combined with efforts to strengthen public awareness and expand prevention, harm reduction and social integration programs.
Time to reform a failed system
The only people who benefit from the government's harsh criminal approach to people who use drugs are the major dealers and corrupt officials. This undermines trust in the criminal justice system.
It is past time for Indonesia to seriously reconsider its approach to drug use. A drug free world is impossible – there will always be people who use drugs in every society. But people who use drugs do not need to be sent to prison.
Indonesia should not continue to allow the narcotics market to be controlled by criminals and corrupt officials. Relaxing Indonesia's policies on personal use of drugs is about the government taking control of a situation that is now well and truly out of control.