Cannabis in Indonesia

Patterns in consumption, production, and policies
Dania Putri Tom Blickman
Drug Policy Briefing Nr 44
January 2016

Cannabis use has never posed major problems in Indonesia, yet prohibitionist policies prevail. Despite the high prevalence of cannabis use, local or national discussions on cannabis policies are nearly non-existent, exacerbated by strong anti-drug views and public institutions' failure to design and implement comprehensive policies based on evidence. Because of the current anti-narcotics law – discussed in detail in this briefing – there have been many obstacles to research on cannabis, both in terms of medical and anthropological research.

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Key points:

  • Traditional use of cannabis in Indonesia has mainly been found in the northern part of Sumatra, particularly in the Aceh region. Restrictions in production, use and distribution of cannabis were initiated by the Dutch colonial government in the 1920s following international actions on cannabis control.
  • Cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in Indonesia, with approximately two million users in 2014. Under the current narcotics law cannabis is included in the most restrictive Schedule I list, along with substances such as heroin, and crystal meth or shabu. Penalties for cannabis-related offences are comparable to shabu- or heroin-related offences, in spite of the common perception that cannabis is less harmful.
  • The ambiguous nature of the narcotics law often triggers the victimisation of cannabis users who are either falsely accused as dealers, or have limited or no access to legal support during legal proceedings. Entrapment and extortion by law enforcement and security officers are widespread.
  • Government attempts to alleviate prison overcrowding by sending users to rehabilitation centres have triggered many criticisms, mainly due to their problematic methods (such as forced urine tests and breaches of patient confidentiality) and the questionable effectiveness of mandatory rehabilitation programmes, especially as the majority of cannabis users do not develop problematic use.
  • Decriminalizing use, possession for personal use and small-scale cannabis cultivation for personal use may help resolve various issues ranging from prison overcrowding to extortion of users by law enforcement officers, and may also free up human and financial resources to tackle problematic use.

Conclusion

Historically, the widespread consumption of cannabis for traditional, recreational and medicinal purposes in the Indonesian archipelago seems to have only been discovered in North Sumatra, mainly in the Aceh region, most likely because of its geographical proximity to the Indian mainland – a region where cannabis use was a more common cultural phenomenon. There is indeed no concrete evidence as to how the use of cannabis spread from North Sumatra to the rest of Indonesia, and eventually became statistically more common than the consumption of other psychoactive substances. One possible – yet incomplete – explanation is that following the opium-related restrictions imposed by the colonial government, cannabis became a regular substitute for opium.

While the first prohibitions of cannabis were attributed to international developments on cannabis control as opposed to consumption-related problems, the government of post-independence Indonesia decided to retain a prohibitionist approach, incrementally creating restrictions in the cultivation, distribution and use of cannabis.

The current, outdated categorisation of cannabis as a Schedule I substance appears to have detrimental impacts not only on cannabis-related offenders such as users and farmers, but also on those victimised due to the illicit distribution of highly addictive drugs such as heroin and crystal methamphetamine. By spending scarce public resources on arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and unnecessary mandatory rehabilitation programmes for cannabis users, not to mention for non-problematic users of other substances, policy-makers fail to address the practical needs of drug users, who will remain marginalised unless the government shifts its attention from supply-reduction efforts to policies based on scientific evidence and harm-reduction principles. The recent escalation of the war on drugs in the country has helped foster the practice of corruption and extortion among law enforcement officers, who have benefited either directly or indirectly from the current prohibitionist policies. These practices have particularly victimised drug users and supply-side offenders who are economically vulnerable.

Recommendations

First and foremost, it is important for policy-makers to acknowledge the economic aspect of the production and distribution of cannabis, which is generated by constant demand and perpetuated by the apparent overlap and relations between legal and illegal enterprises, motivated by either profit or subsistence. It is crucial for public institutions to take these dynamics into account prior to conducting any research activities for policy-making or evaluation purposes, and thus refrain from using any political prejudices or ideologies to find an evidence-based set of alternative policies.

Secondly, cannabis is the most frequent choice of substance among drug users. Decriminalising its personal use, possession for personal use, and small-scale cultivation would not only be economically beneficial, but would also pave the way to minimising problems such as prison overcrowding, corruption and extortion practices, and may halt the distribution of synthetic cannabinoids, which are perceived to be safer due to their legal status. In this case, de-penalising drug use through the effective implementation of the Supreme Court Circular and other technical regulations would be a crucial first step. Additionally, it would be wise for the government to consider tolerating the traditional use of cannabis in Aceh and thus putting an end to eradication programmes, especially considering the region’s traditional and historical relationship with cannabis use.

Although legal reforms and the rescheduling of cannabis appear unlikely in the near future, policy-makers should respect institutional responsibilities of parties such as the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Affairs, notably in relation with research programmes on cannabis and its potential medical applications, which are technically permissible under the current narcotics law. Lastly, there is an urgent need for the government to work on improving cooperation and coordination on the issue of cannabis between public institutions – ranging from lawmakers, various ministerial institutions, the Supreme Court, the BNN, the National Police, to the Indonesian military – and more importantly between public enterprises and civil society and community-based organisations.