Extreme “War on Drugs” in Indonesia is Costing Lives

By: Amanda Carmichael

Indonesia is plagued by drug addiction[1] and has some of the harshest drug laws in the world.[2] Estimates show that roughly six million people, in the country of roughly two-hundred fifty million people are using drugs.[3]  The demographic for drug use is persons between the age of thirteen and twenty-five.[4] Indonesia began the “war on drugs” in 2016, but the efforts have quickly escalated and caused many deaths.[5] The Jakarta Post notes that over 8,000 people have died in this effort to date and that many citizens are concerned the situation will become worse.[6] In addition to the dangers associated with a rising number of drug raids, the President of Indonesia is accused of endorsing the use of deadly force when dealing with drug possessors or drug traffickers who resist arrest.[7] Just this July, President Jokowi urged police to “[g]un them down. [g]ive no mercy” while talking about drug dealers who resist arrest.[8] 

Although the force being used in these drug raids and sting operations is harsh and unnecessary, this blog will focus on the legal aspect of Indonesia’s war on drugs and what happens to drug users, possessors, and traffickers after they are arrested. Additionally, this blog will propose another solution to Indonesia’s drug problem. In 2009, the Indonesian government adopted a new law dealing with drugs that categorize drugs into three groups.[9] The sentences for drug users, possessors, and traffickers varies based on which group that particular drug is associated. Group one drugs include heroin, cocaine, hashish, methamphetamine, and marijuana among others.[10] Group one drugs are considered extremely addictive and not useful for therapeutic uses.[11] For possession of one of these drugs, a person may get four to twelve years imprisonment and fines from roughly $90,000 to $896,000.[12] In addition to those punishments, someone in possession of more than 1 kilogram of these substances may face life imprisonment.[13] For traffickers, the punishments only get worse. A trafficker may face five to fifteen years imprisonment with fines as high as one million dollars and may also face the death penalty.[14]

Group two drugs are those that are seen as useful for therapeutic purposes, but are still harmful in terms of addiction.[15] Group two includes drugs such as morphine, methadone, and oxycodone to name a few.[16] The sentences for possession of these drugs range from three to ten years with fines up to $560,000 to a longer prison sentence of up to fifteen years.[17] For traffickers of these drugs, the death penalty may again be imposed if the amount of drugs a person is caught with exceeds a volume of 5 grams.[18]

Group three drugs are considered much less addictive and therapeutic and include codeine, dihydrocodeine, and buprenorphine.[19] Again, the sentences for possession range from two to ten years with fines up to $336,000 depending on the quality possessed. For trafficking, the death penalty is not an option, but traffickers could face three to fifteen years in prison and a fine of up to $560,000.[20]

To give some perspective as to the harshness of the punishments relating to drug offenses, a person convicted of armed robbery in Indonesia receive up to twenty months imprisonment.[21] For someone who embezzles money, a maximum sentence of six years can be given.[22] For someone who causes physical injury to another by an assault or because of fighting that results in death, the maximum sentence is four years.[23] And lastly, for someone who deliberately causes serious physical injuries to another person, the result is a maximum imprisonment of four years.[24] This means that someone could deliberately attack another person and kill them and go to prison for only four years. But if that same person was carrying a kilogram of marijuana and was arrested, they could be sentenced to death and would be killed by a firing squad, Indonesia’s mode of death penalty.[25]

Since Jokowi became President in 2014, the Indonesian government has executed 18 drug traffickers, a majority of which are citizens of countries other than Indonesia.[26] In addition to those persons whom have been put to death, over sixty people were sentenced to the death penalty in 2016.[27] The country plans to execute another 30 persons in 2017.[28] As appalling as these statistics and factors are, Indonesia is not the only country that allows for the death penalty for drug related offenses. Other countries include “China, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Viet Nam.”[29] For Human Rights groups throughout the world, this is a huge concern.

In 1976, the United Nations published an international covenant called the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”[30] Whereas the covenant does not ban the use of the death penalty, it does narrow the scope of the death penalty and situations concerning the “most serious crimes.”[31] Although the interpretation of what is the “most serious” may be altered based on culture, religion, and tradition, this covenant establishes an obligation to limit the use of the death penalty.[32]  In 1984, the United Nations defined “most serious crimes”  and provided that the death penalty should only be “imposed for intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.”[33] They further went on to say that intentional meant a “deliberate intention to kill.”[34] Given this further guidance, it is arguable that drug related offenses such as possession or use have the requisite intent to kill needed to qualify them as “most serious crimes.” Because of this, the use of the death penalty as a mode of combatting drug usage and trafficking in Indonesia is against international law. Additionally, this method of fighting drugs is not effective. Despite the incredibly high risks that drug possessors and traffickers face in Indonesia if they are caught, the use of narcotics is still on the rise in Indonesia and many drug traffickers are still able to get narcotics into the country.[35] Part of Indonesia’s issue with drug control is the fact that the country consists of over 17,000 islands, and coupled with a lack of sufficient police power, the increased entry of drugs remains.[36]  

One way that Indonesia should consider in addressing its drug consumption issue is to follow the lead of Portugal. In the 1990s, Portugal’s population was plagued with a drug epidemic, much like Indonesia. At that time, one percent of Portugal’s population was using drugs.[37] Instead of ramping up the sentencing for drug related crimes, Portugal chose to decriminalize drug use and treat it as a health issue.[38] Since 2001, the law prescribes mandatory medical treatment for anyone who is found in possession of less than a 10-day supply of drugs.[39] Since its enactment in 2001, the number of deaths due to drug overdose has decreased dramatically from 80 in 2001 to only 16 in 2012.[40] Becuase the drug issue in Indonesia has not improved for many years, its government should consider approaching the problem in a new way. If Indonesia can view its increasing drug consumption problem as a health issue and not as a criminal one, it is arguable the drug issues they have will ease and the country will be healthier overall.


[1] Laine Berman, From Jungkies to Jihad, Inside Indonesia (progressive quarterly) (Jul. – Sept. 2003), http://www.worldpress.org/asia/1487.cfm.

[2] Kate Lamb, A Year After the Bali Nine Executions, Indonesia Prepares Firing Squads Again, The Guardian (Apr. 27, 2016, 7:41 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/28/indonesia-firing-squads-year-after-bali-nine-executions.  

[3] Al Jazeera, Crackdowns and Cutbacks: Indonesiaa’s Drug Policy, (Aug. 2, 2016), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/08/crackdowns-cutbacks-indonesia-drug-policy-160802081040575.html

[4] Berman, supra note 1.

[5] Marguerite Afra Sapiie, Indonesia’s War on Drugs Takes Deadly Turn, The Jakarta Post (Mar. 13, 2017 7:08 AM), http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/03/13/indonesias-war-on-drugs-takes-deadly-turn.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Sapiie, supra note 5; See also Nyshka Chandran, Indonesia Hints at Copying Philippine Leaders Duterte’s Violent Drug War, CNBC (July 27, 2017 11:51 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/27/fears-of-a-philippine-style-drug-war-rise-in-indonesia.html.

[8] Andreas Harsono, Indonesia’s Death Penalty Debacle Exposed, Human Rights Watch (July 21, 2017 7:41 PM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/31/indonesias-death-penalty-debacle-exposed.

[9] See generally IDPC, English Verstion of the Indonesian Narcotics Law (Nov. 23, 2009),  http://idpc.net/publications/2009/11/indonesia-narcotics-law-september-2009-english.

[10] Michael Aquino, Drug Laws in Bali and The Rest of Idonesia, Trip Savvy (July 7, 2017), https://www.tripsavvy.com/drug-laws-in-indonesia-1629332.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] American Receives 20-Month Prison Sentence for Armed Robberties of Convenience Stores in Bali, Indonesian News (July 12, 2017), http://indosurflife.com/2017/07/american-receives-20-month-prison-sentence-armed-robberies-convenience-stores-bali/

[22] Indonesian Penal Code, Section 375.

[23] Id. Section 358.

[24] Id. Section 354.

[25] Cornell Law School, Death Penalty Database, Indonesia (Updated Oct. 1, 2013), https://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=Indonesia#a3-1.

[26] Harsono, supra note 8.

[27] Amnesty International, Death Sentences and Executions 2016, Amnesty International Global Report (2017), file:///Users/amandacarmichael/Downloads/ACT5057402017ENGLISH.PDF.

[28] How Many Drug Users are There in Indonesia?, Indonesia Investments (Oct. 24, 2016), https://www.indonesia-investments.com/news/todays-headlines/how-many-drug-users-are-there-in-indonesia/item7298?.

[29] Amnesty International, supra note 8 at 9.

[30]  International Commission against the Dealth Penalty, The Death Penalty and the “Most Serious Crimes” A Country-by-County Overview of the Dealth Penalty in Law and Practice in Retentionist States, (Jan. 2013), http://www.icomdp.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Most-serious-crimes_final_6Feb2013.pdf.

[31] Id. at 5.

[32] Id.

[33] Cornell Law School, Most Serious Crimes, (Updated Oct. 8, 2015), http://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/most-serious-crimes.cfm.

[34] Id. citing U.N., Rep. of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, UN Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.85, 19 Nov. 1997, para. 13.

[35] Sharon Hambali, A Look at Narcotics Laws and Statistics in Indonesia, indonesia expat (Apr. 3, 2017), http://indonesiaexpat.biz/news/statistics-drugs-in-indonesia/.

[36] Id.

[37] Lauren Frayer, In Portugal, Drug Use is Treated As a Medical Issue, Not a Crime, NPR (Apr. 18, 2017 4:55 AM), http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/04/18/524380027/in-portugal-drug-use-is-treated-as-a-medical-issue-not-a-crime.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Samuel Oakford, Protugal’s Example: What Happened After it Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin, Vice News (Apr. 19 2016), https://news.vice.com/article/ungass-portugal-what-happened-after-decriminalization-drugs-weed-to-heroin.