Indonesia and the Philippines’ “war on drugs” approach is misleading people into thinking that tough laws can deal with all drug-related problems once and forever, Sudirman Nasir writes.
Two champions of the “war on drugs” in Southeast Asia met earlier this month in Jakarta – Indonesian President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte.
Initially, both Jokowi and Duterte denied that drug-related issues, including the fate of death row inmate Mary Jane Veloso, a Philippine citizen who was detained in Indonesia for drug trafficking, were among the topics discussed during the meeting. However, this issue seemed unavoidable and in fact Duterte did mention his support for Indonesia’s tough policy on drugs.
Following the meeting, Jokowi declared that Duterte had told him “Please go ahead if you want to execute her [Veloso]”. Jokowi said, “I see consistency from Duterte in the battle against drug trafficking. Zero tolerance [for drug dealers], so he stated that he respects the Indonesian legal process”. Duterte’s spokesperson disputes the first part of this account, however, saying that all Duterte said was, “Follow your own laws, I will not interfere”.
Both presidents have been unambiguous about their tough and punitive approach to drugs since their first days in office. Throughout his presidency, Jokowi has named drugs as “the number one problem facing Indonesia” and said that the country is in a state of “emergency” because of drug trafficking and drug use and therefore the application of the death penalty is legitimate. Despite numerous protests from the international community as well as academics and human rights activists in Indonesia, Jokowi has stubbornly defended the death penalty as a “shock therapy” to “finish drug dealers,” and made a strong statement calling on people to “chase them [drug traffickers], beat them, hit them.”
Populism and machismo are perhaps the main drivers of the current “war on drugs” in Indonesia and the Philippines. The two leaders appear predisposed to a tough, punitive and militaristic drug policy to look populist, heroic and macho rather than adopting a rational or evidence-based approach. Despite the differences in their verbal style – Jokowi’s soft Javanese speaking style is in stark contrast with Duterte’s aggressive rhetoric – both leaders quickly understood the importance of anti-drug fights, an easily-exploitable issue to gain popular support and to hide their weaknesses in dealing with arguably more important issues in their respective countries such as corruption, poverty, unemployment and inequality.
This obsession to act and look populist, heroic and macho is, of course, appealing to leaders like Jokowi and Duterte, but also hinders people’s capacity to think deeply and to look at the evidence more carefully. In addition, the “war on drugs” approach allows people to simplify the complex nature of drug dealing and drug use. This misleads people into thinking that tough laws alone are a magic bullet that can deal with all drug-related problems once and forever. This simplistic view is of course a myth built on unrealistic optimism.
The reality is that the “war on drugs” exacerbates drug problems in many countries, as numerous studies have shown, and neither reduces the availability nor the consumption of drugs. The second report in a series by the Global Commission on Drug Policy found that despite the US budget for combating drugs increasing more than six fold since the early 1980s, the price of heroin has now dropped to about a fifth of what it was back then, while heroin’s purity has increased by more than 900 per cent.
Punitive approaches to drug policy have also created far worse unintended consequences – particularly in regards to the spread of viruses like HIV as injectable drugs and the use of contaminated injecting equipment are among the most common ways such viruses are transmitted. As the Commission’s report shows, the statistics are frightening. Five of the seven countries where the incidence of HIV has increased since the late 1990s are in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and South East Asia, and the number of people living with HIV has almost tripled since 2000.
A preceding report by the Open Society Foundation, a major global advocate for drug policy reform, outlined the results from countries which have taken the opposite approach to the “war on drugs” and pursued policies that balance legal frameworks with public health and social considerations, leading to substantially better outcomes. Considering the case of Portugal, where the government decriminalised drug possession and use, the report found that drug consumption did not spike as a result and indeed the rate of drug-related HIV transmission fell sharply. Additionally, more people accessed treatment and other services and the proportion of drug offenders in the Portuguese prison system fell from 44 per cent in 1999 to 21 per cent in 2008.
While public health and human right experts advocate looking at successful cases in Portugal, Switzerland or the Netherlands where drug consumption has been significantly reduced through drug policy reform, decriminalisation, and the strengthening of support schemes, both Indonesia and the Philippines appear more captivated by the largely unsuccessful strategy of forceful deterrence. For the leaders of these countries populism and machoism are more appealing than any willingness to look at the scientific evidence, coupled with the appeal of short-term political benefits from exploiting drug issues.
Despite the rhetoric and bluster of the ‘war on drugs’, researchers and activists in Indonesia and the Philippine must continue to advocate the importance and long-term benefits of an evidence-based approach to drug issues.