Kerobokan Prison Blues: Tourists and Indonesia’s harsh drug laws

IF the international war on drugs were to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, as per Marx, the first cracks would probably appear in Indonesia, where draconian drug laws are making little headway against porous borders and pockets of heavy drug use.

Sign in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia. Image © Tom Hodginson / Creative Commons.

Despite a strengthened anti-narcotics law implemented in 2009, the drug scene in Indonesia shows no sign of going away. The head of Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency (BNN) believes the drug-using population in the country hit five million in 2011, representing about 3 percent of Indonesians between 10 and 59 years of age.

With such a large gap between the lofty goals of Indonesia’s harsh drug laws and the reality, one can’t help but suspect that local authorities encourage press coverage of foreign tourists caught with illegal drugs to cover up their shortcomings.

To be sure, cases like the Bali Nine, Schapelle Corby and the unknown Australian teenager grab all the international headlines where drugs and Indonesia are concerned, but they’re only the most visible part of a really murky picture.

Sign in Bali, Indonesia. Image © Chris Streeter / Creative Commons.

Indonesian Law No. 35/2009 is pretty clear about the penalties for getting caught with illegal drugs. Users found with “group 1” drugs – a group of “therapeutically useless” drugs that include heroin, cocaine, marijuana, hashish, LSD, and meth – get a maximum of life imprisonment for mere possession (although small amounts can net you about four to 12 years in prison). Traffickers of group 1 drugs get death.

You can read a PDF of the drug law in Bahasa Indonesia here: Indonesian Law No. 35/2009. And here’s an English Version of the Indonesian Narcotics Law – International Drug Policy Consortium (appendix is missing).

The 2009 law allowed the unnamed Australian teen to get off easy; instead of sentencing him to a maximum term of six years, the judge sentenced him to two months, including time served. The Bali Nine and Schapelle Corby were not as lucky – caught trafficking in huge amounts of heroin and marijuana respectively, the courts threw the book at them, sentencing the Nine’s ringleaders to death and Corby to 20 years in prison.

Matthew Norman

Australian Matthew Norman, a member of the 'Bali Nine' pictured in an Indonesian prison. Pic: AP.

The law may have come down hard on these convicts, but outside cases in the media spotlight, drug laws in Indonesia are not as consistently applied. Restaurants on the main drag of Gili Trawangan openly advertise hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms” in their food (there is no law enforcement presence in the Gilis; that is another story entirely). Putauw (low-grade heroin) and shabu-shabu (crystal meth) persist in the cities, encouraged by inconsistent application of the law and porous sea borders that easily admit drugs from China and the Golden Triangle.

So there’s a sizeable chance, if you’re a drug-using tourist in Bali, that you’ll fall on the sweet side of this margin of error and use drugs without being picked up by the polisi. But don’t take this as an endorsement or encouragement: you might think you can get away with it, but plenty of foreigners doing hard time in Kerobokan Prison thought the same way, too.

For a more general view of Southeast Asia’s harsh drug laws, read Trouble in paradise: Falling foul of Southeast Asia’s tough drug laws.