Drug Use in Indonesia: a cultural-political perspective

Drug Use in Indonesia:

a cultural-political perspective

(this was written in 2002 but still quite relevant today)

Men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the “why” of it which is to grasp its primary cause. Aristotle’s Physica, Book II.



Identifying the root causes of a social problem is undoubtedly difficult – even more so in societies like Indonesia, where ‘truth’ is a commodity to be fiercely guarded, shaped, and rewritten for political purposes. Yet it is common sense to state that a problem cannot be solved without first identifying its underlying cause or causes. The drug epidemic among Indonesian youth is a problem that has been approached from a politically shaped model of causal reasoning – reflecting the same kinds of hysterical demonic association used with other state enemies such as communism. The media and the streets are full of destructive euphemisms and threatening slogans that emphasize how drugs are destroying the very fabric of society. Stone (1998) states that in politics, we look for causes to understand how things work and also to assign responsibility for problems. Then it is possible to ‘solve’ problems by using this knowledge to prevent people from causing the problem and to punish them for having caused suffering in others. Yet, there are no rational notions of ‘truth’ where drugs are concerned. Notions of ‘truth’ are far from resolved in the United States also despite a decade long ‘drug war’ and billions of dollars of investment. From ‘Just Say No’ to ‘Zero Tolerance’, American policy has succeeded in alienating kids through ‘fear appeal’ and blatant misinformation (www.CERD.com). Indonesians too are coaxed away from some aspect of the ‘truth’ when they are encouraged by their community leaders, ministers, and the police to take matters into their own hands and to ‘destroy, annihilate, exterminate, burn off’ the drug menace (see BeritaNAZA, 2000; also slogans on banners all over Java), which in effect, undermines any legitimate causal responsibility in favor of emotional mob rule.

Despite the basic fact that no one knows what really causes drug addiction or why its history and use are confounded by such blatant inconsistencies (see Atrens, 2000; Peele, 1986), contemporary accounts are designed to generate a great deal of passion. Blame is highly apparent in the streets of Indonesia, where war-like slogans vow to annihilate drug users. Throughout the media and scholarly reports, putaw (street grade heroin) and shabu-shabu (crystal methamphetamine) are termed the ‘devil’s powder’, and users, especially if they are young, well-to-do, or celebrities are the ‘unwitting victims of predatory dealers’. The media is full of terrifying accounts of destruction and violence, young lives cut short, children stealing from parents, 11 year olds lured into barbiturate addiction and prostitution. ‘A single use can result in addiction’ and ‘women will be forced into prostitution to support their habits’ are some of the scare tactics commonly seen. Such common fiction creates and maintains irrational fears and encourages many to believe that these substances really do have demonic powers (Hamid, 1998). Given also the context of ignorance, poverty, and political, cultural, social and economic degradation rampant in Indonesia, and it is no wonder that drug use has gained such allure among the young. Meanwhile, following a very long history of imposed powerlessness through silence and oppression, the vast majority of Indonesians resort to prayer alone to protect their families from the scourge of drugs.

This paper attempts to describe Indonesia’s current drug epidemic by contextualizing it within the broader social, political and cultural domains that shape it through analysis of media stories, Indonesian internet mail-lists, academic reports, ethnographic studies and popular culture. To learn why people behave in certain ways, it is important to learn about their culture, values, and traditions. From this foundation of diverse perspectives on a social ‘disease’, I will suggest that the true cause of the drug epidemic is the general state of powerlessness carefully imposed upon the Indonesian peoples as intentioned policy. Yet, while powerlessness in the political domain translates as oppressed and repressed, this powerlessness is carried over into everyday life where it becomes a lack of control over one’s destiny. That the Suharto regime was extremely skillful in weakening opposition and silencing the masses as state policy is well known. His methods ranged from ruthless repression to co-optation of those prepared to compromise. Reward for conformity or terror and the fear of sanctions for those who stepped outside the system, both lead to apathy – a palpable lack of sympathy, concern, or activity (Berman, 1998; Schwarz, 1994; Siegel, 1998; Indonesia-L mail-list discussion, April 2002). Such powerlessness in terms of public health has been shown to be a major risk factor for disease (Wallerstein, 1992). Powerlessness among Javanese women as victims of violence has been shown to manifest itself in illness, acquiescence, and in a glorified submission to suffering in silence (Berman, 1998; 1999). Powerlessness has also been shown to lead to anxiety, stress, depression, anger, frustration and dissatisfaction among the marginalized street youth of Java (Beazley, 1999). At least for some, drug use has become a kind of ‘symbolic barrier’, a weapon that can distance youths from a system that imposes such powerlessness and permits little space for alternative values – despite its all to obvious failings.


Drugs and Politics

My concern is that the drug epidemic is intentionally ignored by the authority as a means of drawing youth away from the political problems or social issues escalating in society (dr. Gultom, drug counselor and rehab expert, Suara Pembaruan, 10 Jan. 1998)

In modern Indonesian contexts, drug abuse co-occurs with juvenile delinquency and almost inevitably is considered a consequence of the national crises that have repeatedly infected the nation since 1997. It is widely believed that the younger generations have had their ‘sense of self’ dirtied by the amoral lifestyles, mass anger, corruption, and the brutality that have come to be daily behaviors in contemporary Indonesia (SolusiPSI, 19 January 2002). The economic, social and cultural devastation, that had been politically manipulated and covered up through the 32 year authoritarian reign of President Suharto, worsened following his overthrow and the breakdown of his carefully crafted system of absolute control. National prestige was indelibly blackened through the widespread violence, destruction, murder, and targeting of Chinese nationals in 1998, images of cannibalism and mass murder in Kalimantan in 1999, and the devastation through hired, frenzied thugs following the East Timor referendum in 1999. During all of it, the authorities were mainly invisible – or worse, implicated themselves in the violence. Now, the commercial financial sector is paralyzed, and banks have virtually ceased operations (USAID, 2001). In Jakarta, a huge metropolis of 8 million, one out of three workers is out of work, and unemployment nationwide has reached 40.2% (Jakarta Post, 16 Feb, 2002). Per capita income dropped from $1,200 to $400, and an estimated 40 million people fall below the absolute poverty line. Within this scenario of national collapse, Indonesians believe that drug addiction has become a way to cope with disaster[1].

Most affected by drug addiction are those between 13 and 25 years old, making up 40% of the 210 million citizens of Indonesia. Understanding drug problems in Indonesia, however, is made more complicated because of the well-known ‘secret’ that drug dealing is tied to politics. Defense and judiciary involvement is common with large segments of police and soldiers testing positive for drugs in their urine (usually Ecstasy, amphetamines known as SS, or low grade heroin, known locally as putaw), and high ranking officers caught red-handed smoking SS or putaw with noted dealers (Gatra, 1999; Tempo, 2000[2]). In Medan, a recent report claimed that police officials freed drug traffickers upon arrest, despite ample evidence of crimes that could easily warrant a trial — if not a conviction (the Jakarta Post, 3 Apr 2002). I (and many others in the expatriate community) have quite frequently been offered ‘guaranteed high quality’ drugs by court officials and police who admit with absolutely no embarrassment that they use and sell confiscated drugs. This ‘official’ involvement in the national drug industry reaches right into the Suharto family palace with his grandson, Ari, and granddaughter-in-law, Maya, traffickers and users of ecstasy and SS themselves, and assorted generals and other leaders widely recognized as ‘backing’ drug trafficking and distribution. One consequence of this high level involvement is weak law enforcement with major dealers rarely getting more than 1 year in prison – if any time at all. Compare this to Indonesia’s neighbors, Malaysia and Singapore, and their automatic death penalty for any drug offense, and it is easy to see why Indonesia is the ideal location for expanding international syndicates as a transshipment point for Golden Triangle heroin (MSNBC, nd).

In 1997 the Indonesian drug laws were revised to include a death penalty for producing, processing, extracting, converting or making available category 1 narcotics (Narcotics and Psychotropics Act No.22, 1997, Article 80). The law has never yet been used – for well connected, big time dealers. When the owner of an ecstasy factory in Jakarta with a capacity of 1.8 million pills per month was sentenced, he only received 8 months, and Ang Kiem Soei, the owner of two of the country’s largest ecstasy-producing factories and said to be the largest in the world (JP, 26 April), was sentenced to three years and 24 days in prison in 1998 (JP, 12 April, 2002). It is widely believed that officers from the National Police, the Jakarta Police and the Tangerang Police had been on Ang Kiem’s payroll since 1999, receiving billions of rupiah each month from the sale of millions of ecstasy pills produced in his factories (JP 12 April 2002). In contrast, those unwitting pawns caught in the process or those with no backing from above do receive a death sentence (Tempo, 2001; JP, 14 Dec. 2001). But even small time involvement is worth big money for the police. According to Tempo magazine (3 Sep 2000), “Until now, not only have the punishments [for trafficking] been light, but we hear many strange stories: those jailed for narcotics who are able to buy their freedom for millions of Rupiah, and of legal evidence which disappears while in the hands of security apparatus. We have to admit that monitoring is not tight enough, or perhaps there are ‘games’ being played” (Tempo, 3 Sep. 2000; see also FaktaHAM, 2000; Suara Merdeka, 1999 for similar complaints). More often than not, it is common practice for those held on petty drug cases in prisons to be held for ‘ransom’, until they can buy their way out (pers. com. Rosa on her brother’s experience, 2001, 2002; Erry on his own drug bust, 2000; Hajar on his arrest, 1993; Sgt. Untung from the perspective of the police officer, 1993; see JP, 1 April 2002 and 12 April 2002 on the widespread use of bribery in the courts). This is a great deal of opportunity as almost 43 percent of Indonesian inmates at the moment have been jailed for drug-related offenses (JP, 5 April 2002)[3].

In such a hugely diverse country as Indonesia, politics is not as simple as the rich and powerful backing the drug economy and playing their ‘games’, however. Nor is it the petty corruption of a deeply dysfunctional system, where civil servants (police are civil servants), the military, and most others expect a ‘tip’ for services as their right since salaries are never enough to cover basic family needs. What I used to discount as paranoia or a cultural tendency to search for blame anywhere as long as there is no individual responsibility, in fact often does appear as strategic, vengeful destruction. An ‘expert’ from the Indonesian National Narcotics Coordination Board (Badan Koordinasi Narkotik Nasional (BKNN)) has claimed that the narcotics escalation in Indonesia is intentioned sabotage:

What we are witnessing now is the slow but certain destruction of our younger generation through narcotics. In fact there are those who believe that the reasons behind the drug explosion is specifically to destroy this younger generation so that our nation is not capable of becoming an advanced, stable nation (Pikiran Rakyat, 11 Feb. 2002).

From the sharp escalation of youth drug abuse to the extreme violence rocking the nation[4], Indonesians search for the reasons for these unimaginable behaviors in the vast chasm between elite leadership and the general population, from within their national borders and more often beyond. Broken homes, parental neglect, youth maladjustment, and deep-rooted insecurity are the usual culprits on some levels (see http://www.iqeq.web.id/remaja/remaja2.shtml). But there are many others too who believe these crises are caused by the unruly effects of globalization, modernization, and international political ploy. Fundamentalist Islamic forces, which have become increasingly popular in a society with little else to rely on, claim the drug epidemic is caused by “an attack of the thought and culture of freedom borne by the ideologies of the capitalist-secularist western nations” (Yayasan Hikmatul Iman, nd; also see Liputan Khusus, nd for discussion of the ‘new Imperialism’ through drugs). In addition to the basic capitalist greed of drug dealing and the need for ever-increasing profits, a further purpose is to strategically weaken the generation of young Muslims. “With damaged lifestyles, and their bodies, minds, intellects, and social skills weakened, capitalist nations can easily enslave Muslim societies in the future”. Thus, any Muslims who still possess self-respect as a Muslim must not sit in silence as they witness this murdering of the younger generation. With little choice but to begin a new jihad, Muslims are warned of the Profit’s words: “And be thou afraid of Allah those of you who leave behind weak children, those whose welfare is uncertain” (QS:4:9 cited in Yayasan Hikmatul Iman, nd). Thus, the Profit requires all Muslims to act, speak, and pray in the war against drugs.

Alternative Perspectives : Drug Trends and Jungkies Style

While junkie trends in lifestyle and fashion in the West might be based more on a ‘waif’ style, i.e., unnatural thinness as depicted in ads and fashion magazines, in Indonesia, junkie style (spelled jungkie) is associated with freedom, openness, honesty, and what is known as cuek, an utter lack of concern (‘cuek is the best’ is a very popular slogan appearing on stickers and t-shirts as homage to a cuek attitude). It is tied to the hippie clothes and influences of the American 60s – 70s and glorified by celebrities, musicians, and artists who dress and act in a ‘relaxed’ manner. Jakarta department stores and flash glossy spreads in teen magazines label grunge, punk, or hip-hop clothes as New Jungkies Style. The word jungkies also appears in the phrase to ‘live jungkies’, meaning to live free and unimpeded by societal pressures (Musikamu, 2002). Placed in the context of modern Indonesia with its multiple crises, rampant corruption, lack of opportunity, basic unfairness, and repressive alienation of all those not advantaged by connections to the ruling elite, and it is easy to understand why jungkies style and its cuek demeanor has become such a popular concept. Drug use is a significant aspect of this lifestyle and the very popular Jakarta-based rock n roll band Slank seems to possess the most trend-setting cultural capital in this area. To be a slanker then is to possess this highly valued freedom.

From the name (a variation on slang but replace the final ‘g’ with a ‘k’ as is the trend in youth discourse), down to their image and style, Slank is an extremely potent representative of the aspirations of Indonesian working class youth. From their roots, these five young men did not hail from wealthy families and none have gone to university. Yet they have arisen in a society that rarely permits such success among the masses to represent a way of life that borders on mythology. Their followers are described as an umat (the word is generally used to mean a religious community or following) and not just as fans and they are identifiable by their long hair, grunge dress, and relaxed lifestyle, i.e., slankers seem like the hippies of the 1970s.

As we waited for the traffic light to turn green, we noticed a pair of street buskers, a young man and his girlfriend. The guy had unwashed, stringy hair down to his shoulders, was wearing gray baggy, torn trousers, a Slank tee shirt, and carrying a battered guitar. The girl was clean-cut and in a high school uniform. The comments from my ‘death metal’ companions were: hey look, a slanker got himself a school girl. I bet her parents don’t know (field notes, Jakarta, 2000).

From their grass roots origins, Slank has emerged to represent a philosophy of life that others see as pure, real, and meaningful. It stems from real life experience, what BimBim the drummer states is “the bitterness, the broken heart, the pain, the loss of direction, further compounded by external situations like the economic crisis, as the path to awareness” (SCTV, 2000). Maturity then, is a process without end for those youth who see themselves as truly existing. They taste bitterness in order to pull themselves away from it. Only then can they claim to be ‘mature’. For so many of Indonesia’s youth, bitterness and frustration are indeed a part of everyday life that does not need to be sought after. Slank, then, speaks directly to these feelings of alienation and confusion and glorifies them. Yet, bitterness too describes the taste of heroin and all of Slank’s musicians were addicts.

Members of the band Slank were very clearly high on putaw (street quality heroin) during several of the taped interviews I saw on Indonesian TV throughout the 1990s and early 2000. From half hour specials praising the music and popularity of the band to brief interviews on Indonesian versions of MTV, members would discuss their ‘philosophy’ on peace (spelled piss) in a drawn out slurred speech punctuated by runny-nose wiping, frequent facial and body scratching, and at one point, one of the members of the band was clearly seen to be ‘nodding out’. The fact that such a spectacle was even aired reveals to what extent mainstream Indonesians remain naïve about the signals and symptoms of drug abuse. This was after all an example of the trendy cuek attitude and thus a ‘cool’ response to the politics of crisis.

For their fans, this is what they call the Generasi Biru or Blue Generation, blue as in blues music, which is what Slank plays. Blue also represents the sea, “the symbol of humanity’s journey prior to enlightenment”, says Bimbim Slank, referring to the ‘floating’ feel one gets from injecting heroin. It has become an anthem for many.

Generasi Biru

I am not a pawn on a chess board

I cannot be told what to do

Don’t you try and stop me

Cause I’m Generasi Biru

Biru, biru ……… Generasi Biru ?!
Biru, biru ……… Generasi Biru !!

I cannot be controlled
I want to think for myself
Don’t try your tricks on me
Because I’m Generasi Biru

Leave it open wide
No need to shut my eyes
I need to see it all clearly
This is the age of Generasi Biru

Leave me to shout it clearly

I want to sing out loud
This is the song of Generasi Biru

I am not your son
This is my dream, my control
My tie to you is irrelevant
I am a creation of God

Elements of a widening ‘generation gap’ emerge here through rock n roll poetry. These younger generations reject the prevailing ‘Floating Mass’ doctrine, an approach to rule that allows the elite to socially engineer the (ignorant) masses so they concentrate on development rather than on political activity (see Schwarz, 1994; Human Rights Watch, 1998) for the hierarchical control and political trickery that it is. Unlike their parents, this younger generation refuses to remain silent and docile. After all, this is the generation of youths who occupied the Parliament, overthrew the dictator, and propelled the ‘reformasi’ (reformation) in 1998. Yet by 2002 things have only gotten worse and they recognize their inability to alter an oppressive, corrupt, hierarchical system that controls their lives yet allows them no voice. The result is the creation of Generasi Biru, disaffected youth who are by no means naïve – they just recognize the powerlessness of their situation and they simply don’t care any more.

Contemporary Indonesians immerse themselves in their version of westernized popular culture as symptoms of their own subculture. Commodities such as clothes, hair styles and especially colors (i.e., anything but the natural black), styles of speech, and a ‘cuek’ attitude are arranged to give the appearance of personal liberation and to mark the youth subculture off from the surrounding more orthodox cultural formations (see Beazley, 1999: 199; Hebdige, 1979:103). Without a wide selection of opportunities, behaviors, apparel, or access to the all-important funds, urban youth appropriate objects and attitudes which then become ‘tokens of power’. Such ‘tokens’ give them feelings of connection with others in their community, while they distance themselves from the stringent requirements, expectations, and behaviors of ‘traditional’ Eastern cultures in transition. Acceptance of behaviors and objects with socially defined stigma (i.e., sex, drugs, tattoos, and the cuek demeanor), demonstrates the rejection of mainstream ‘norms’, and thus becomes a medium for social expression above and beyond the limitations of culturally defined propriety. Further, the relative poverty most of these kids are living in requires many to turn to the only canvas readily available, their own bodies. Drugs are a major example of one such trendy object and many addicts and former addicts admit they became users because it was viewed as cuek personified, i.e., a detachment that was cool, modern, rebellious, and provocative. “And besides, everyone else was doing it”, report all of my informants.

Fortunately for many, Slank members have given up their dependencies on putaw and publicly take part in anti drug campaigns. Their lyrics reflect their experiences with putaw:


My love for you

puts holes in my wallet

life is a shambles

absorbed in serving you

loving you

can’t handle food

my body is thin

exhausted from serving you

With lyrics as these, Slank sends a powerful message to its followers about the disastrous effects of chemical dependency. As members of the Slankers’ Club in Yogyakarta informed me, after hearing this song, they stopped using pe-te (putaw). Slank has the potential to send messages to its followers and young Indonesians clearly need to hear them. But if putaw isn’t the answer to youth problems and the general state of bitterness that is modern Indonesia for them, than what is? With no alternative in sight, many chose to maintain their drug habits as the only ‘faithful’ outlet they have (pers comm., Jodi G. 2001).

The tendency toward external influence, the power of the group over the individual, as well as the positive image given to drug use in youthful contexts all fall smack in the face of mainstream anti-drug messages emanating from the more ‘traditional’ and ‘respectful’ aspects of society with its rampant corruption, manipulation, and arrogance. The voice of authority is the voice of lies, oppression, greed, and hypocrisy. It screams ‘don’t’ to its youth, while at the same time it accepts ‘backing’ money from dealers. Its little wonder then that so many have heeded to the lure of the warm embrace of putaw or the frenetic excitement of SS. Drugs for many are a better alternative than awareness, since mainstream conformity is so damned frustrating, full of lies, and offers so little opportunity.

Styles of Mabuk

It’s a lie if a high school boy tells you he has never tried putaw (Suara Pembaruan, 10 Jan. 1998).

Rock bands such as Slank certainly have strong influences, but the breadth of the current drug epidemic clearly extends way beyond Slank’s scope of influence. With almost no studies on the numbers of users in Indonesia, approximations are based on the numbers of individuals seeking treatment. Apparently in 1995 someone in the government claimed that .065% of the population was using drugs although it is unknown what such a number is based on. Thus with an estimation based on the 200 million population at that time, the number 130,000 was given. Many realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg and arbitrarily multiplied this number by 10. Today the number of addicts in Indonesia is assumed to be 1.3 million and this is what you see in most reports (Yatim, et al., 2000, although some are doubling this number again in light of the doubling of numbers seeking treatment between 1999 and 2000, see JP, 3 April 2002). Only one report mentioned a study done in two small communities in Jakarta with 30 young men between the ages of 15 and 25. Of these 30, 3 had already died of an overdose, 15 were injecting drug addicts (60%), and only 6 were not using at all (cited in Yatim, et al., 2000; Reid et al, 2002). No further information is offered, but it does hint at the potential size of the actively using population. As stated elsewhere, everybody’s doing it.

Mabuk or mendhem (Jv) are the generic terms for any kind of drunkenness, nausea, or illness and drunkenness does quite often result in vomiting and passing out, although both are considered signs of weakness. Other frequently heard words are: teler out of it and tewas, lit. dead, is used to mean passed out (Beazley, 1999:208). Drug and alcohol use is structured by the local concept of style and masculinity in Indonesian kampungs. To belong to the group, one must take part in its rituals. Alcohol or drug consumption among street youths is for the primary purpose of getting stoned as quickly as possible with little or no notion of ‘social’ use (see Beazley, 1999). Older working class people, however, have used drink and drugs as a social act for centuries. People gather at angkringan or warung cowboy (portable night stalls) and drink lapen, a very potent local alcoholic brew, with friends, play guitar and talk all night. Lapen is common in Central Java but each province in Indonesia has its own long history of locally brewing alcoholic drinks from palm sugar (noted in Raffles, 1817, but obviously predating him). Often late at night circles of men are visible sitting on woven mats on the street or at the top of an alley passing a small glass around the circle as each downs whatever mixture has been proffered. The glass can contain local sweet wine, beer, jamu oplosan, which is a variety of lapen but mixed with pills, medicinal herbs, insecticide, or any combination of the above. Sometimes these mixtures can be fatal (JP, 1 April, 2002). Cigarettes, and some 70% of all Indonesians smoke, will invariably be shared amongst all in the group. For many of these men, drinking defeats the boredom and seems to provide opportunities not normally available. Drinking sets up a situation, an atmosphere, where anything might happen (Willis, 1990:45). Often enough, someone will light up some ganja and pass that around the group too.

Different groups have different styles of mabuk, depending on current trends, affordability, age, social position, or access. Young street kids “almost always have a glue pot concealed beneath their tee shirts (Beazley, 1999:208)”. Kecubung, a large seed from a locally growing tree, can be ground up and mixed with coffee or smoked for its hallucinatory but poisonous effects. Mushrooms too are available free, if you know where to find them. As shocked as most Indonesians seem to be at the extent of current drug activity, it is important to point out that opium (candu) has a very long history of use among the Javanese of all classes as well as the Chinese[5]. As far back as the 17th century, Dutch explorers note some 1,000 opium dens in Jakarta and 100,000 registered users most being Javanese (Reid, et al, 2002)


Ganja, or marijuana, has been grown in the North Sumatran region of Aceh for as long as people can remember. It is inexpensive and, at least on the island of Sumatra, it is easily acquired. For the Acehnese, ganja has been used for centuries as a cooking spice: the seeds are ground up as flavoring for fried rice and the leaves are used in curried goat. Mature leaves are used to cover flesh wounds and young leaves are eaten to enhance appetite. Elsewhere, ganja is used by heavy physical laborers to enhance strength. According to Indonesian experts, frequent users of ganja cannot sit still, move their fingers constantly, laugh over nothing, feel hungry, and will eventually begin using putaw, shabu-shabu, or ecstasy (Sinaga, 2002). Ganja is reportedly cultivated in Aceh and sold to fund the insurgent Movement for a Free Aceh. Thus, it is difficult to find now in Java because of police crackdowns (i.e., ganja affects national unity, unlike other drugs). Ganja is, according to Indonesian drug laws, categorized as a psychotropic, and an opiate. It is considered addictive and dangerous.


On average, Java-based Indonesians begin ‘experimenting’ in middle school where all of the young men I interviewed in 1999 and 2000 claimed to have begun using drugs and had their first sexual contact. At around the ages of 12 to 15, young men begin using pills (ngepil) since these are the easiest to get their hands on. Groups of friends chip in whatever funds they have to buy whatever is around to get them mabuk. A strip of 20 pill koplo (koplo means stupid and is associated with the pills for obvious reasons) could easily be had for just a few cents – less than the price of a movie ticket. Obat gendheng or crazy drug is what street kids refer to as mixing alcohol with lots of pills. As many have informed me, if you take 20 to 30 of anything you’ll most definitely get stoned (field notes/pers com. Kangmas 1993, and see Berman, 1992). Locally manufactured BK are antihistamines named after the Bandung Kininefabriek, the first pharmaceutical company in Indonesia built during the Dutch occupation. Rohypnol is good for ‘forgetting’. Naphacin can be mixed with Sprite, alcohol, or coffee to ‘get high straight away’. Mogadon and Rohypnol can totally incapacitate for 2 to 3 days. Mixing pills with alcohol makes the user aggressive and many street fights begin for no reason beyond machismo, or the basic fact that the user can feel no pain (see Beazley, 1999). Many high school kids use pills prior to the street brawls that are a very common ‘diversion’ in Jakarta (Agence France-Presse, 1999; see Hamid, 1998 for a discussion of drugs and violence), and there are many eye-witness accounts of drug-taking among militias prior to the murderous, destructive rampages that occurred in Jakarta in 1998 and East Timor in 1999 (the Nation, 2001; Noeradi, 2001; Sydney Morning Herald April 20, 2001). Drugs are a common enough aspect of criminal behavior to have warnings appear in Expatriate websites (UK Government). Gang activity too is frequently tied to mixing drugs and fighting, as their names reveal: Lapendoz are pill-addicted young people who like to fight; Lapenz Boyz mix the potent Lapen with pills; and Migraine boys are well noted for being hooked on the pain killing drug ponstan (Mas Sujoko, 1997). Those youths I interviewed in Jakarta in 2000 unanimously claim drug use stops after marriage and is predominantly a ‘bachelor’ activity. This is obviously a myth that many of the wives of addicts I interviewed would scoff at. Meanwhile, lack of emotional and financial maturity in a marriage (that more often than not occurred because of pregnancy) are also major reasons for prolonging the ‘bachelors’ pastime. While no studies to date have yet focused on drug or alcohol consumption and violence or crime, one 1996 study at a hospital in Bali showed that 75% of all accidental injuries were road accidents and drugs or alcohol were the main causes (Soetjiningsih, 1999, cited in Yatim, et al., 2000).


Ecstasy is made from MDMA(Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), which is in powder form before it is processed into capsules or pills. MDMA, or ecstasy, is a synthetic, psychoactive drug with stimulant and hallucinogenic properties. MDMA is taken orally, usually in tablet or capsule form, and its effects last approximately four to six hours. The drug produces profoundly positive feelings, empathy for others, elimination of anxiety and extreme relaxation. MDMA suppresses the need to eat, drink or sleep and can consequently result in severe dehydration or exhaustion. The drug is most frequently linked to late-night parties called ‘raves’, nightclubs, and concerts. Ineks as it is known in Indonesia was first smuggled in from Holland in the late 1980s, early 1990s, but has been manufactured illegally in Tangerang, Jakarta since 1998. The factories in Tangerang are said to be the largest in the world supplying an international market as well as domestic (JP, 19 April 2002). Ineks is extremely expensive and good quality imported pills sell for between rupiah 75,000 and 150,000. Locally made varieties sell for between rupiah 15,000 and 35,000 (JP, 8 April 2002). Some of the locally made ‘street quality’ Ineks is actually made of shabu-shabu combined with anything else available and finished off with Baygone insecticide (Sinaga, 2002).


Street heroin is locally called PT (pe-te) or putaw, from the word putih (white) which is the color of the China white heroin most common in Indonesia. The ‘aw’ ending originates from the sound of the Chinese language to locals – words seem to them to have aw endings, and ‘sound cool’. Many words describing heroin then take on this aw form, including sakau, from sakit or pain, which describes the physical/mental need for more of the drug, or makaw the active form of pakai meaning to use. ‘Chasing the dragon’ used to be the usual method for ingesting the drug. Chasing is locally called ‘dragon’ or ‘drek’ and is done by placing a small bit of the powder on aluminum foil, which is then heated by placing a lighter below it. White smoke is released from heating the powder, which is then inhaled through following or chasing it with a rolled up bill or a straw. For the most part, however, by the 1990s more than 70% of users have moved to injecting (Yatim, et al., 2000). Reasons for the shift to IDU is to save money (the economic crisis resulted in a doubling of the price of putaw between 1998 and 2001), to increase effects of the drug, and peer pressure (Reid, et al, 2002). This widespread shift to IDU raises serious concerns over related infection. There is a high prevalence of risky behavior with sharing of equipment common and little to no cleaning of injecting equipment (Gordon, et al 2000; Irwanto, 2001). Without widespread testing, HIV statistics are just as speculative as are addict numbers. Reports vary from a low of 15% and a high of 30% of IDUs are HIV positive[6] and between 60 and 98% are infected with Hepatitis C (Irwanto, 2001; Yayasan Kita, 2001). Further adding to the current hysteria is the belief that between 17 to 25% of IDUs will die as a direct result of their drug use. Dr. Dadang Hawari claims to have research that “indicates 17,16% of the illegal drug addicts died. By calculation, this means a total of 228.800 persons” (Gunadi, et al. nd).


Crystal methamphetamine is locally referred to as Ice, which becomes es in the local tongue. Es evolved into SS. SS eventually became shabu-shabu, which is now referred to on the streets as Sebastian. In addition to back-street use, SS is used by women who want to loose weight and executives who want to increase stamina for work. SS is also widely and incorrectly believed on the streets to be an ‘antidote’ for putaw addiction. It is mainly ingested by smoking it in a delicate glass water pipe or by ‘chasing the dragon’. It was introduced to Indonesia in 1998 from the Philippines, but is now produced locally.

The drugs of choice in urban Indonesia are putaw and SS, with widespread poly drug use. It is very common to buy putaw that contains SS and vice versa. Accessibility is never a problem with drugs being sold from many road side food stalls, malls, campuses, and from street venders. Elementary school children have reported to me that they buy putaw from the guy who sells bottled water in front of their school. They give the appearance of buying water but the drugs are taped to the bottom of the bottle. Local press reports show how widely known the ‘hot spots’ are for buying drugs in Jakarta, with many naming areas, streets, markets, even specific hotels for purchasing each kind of drug. Despite all of this ‘public knowledge’, the government entered into the debate on drug use in 2001. Yet little focused action emerges from official levels. In the face of all the inactivity, public reaction has taken over where official response fails.

Prevention Practices: Street Justice

With official channels weak and ineffective, the Indonesian masses have been urged to take the street battle against drugs into their own hands. After all, its their own children and safety at stake. Beginning in 1999, the public became aware that drug use was not just something that happened to rich kids. Once reports hit the press that elementary school children were being induced to take drugs by dealers who refer to them as ‘courage-building pills’, and that sentences for convicted dealers were so light, the major backlash began (Yatim, et al, 2000). By 2001, at the crossroads and entrances to urban communities all over the Island of Java residents have been encouraged to hang banners with slogans such as: Destroy drug users and dealers; Drugs: Indonesia’s number one enemy; Drug-Free Community; Death to all Drug Users and Dealers. In 2002, a crowd of 2,000 Jakartans took an oath “to wage war against the distribution and abuse of drugs,” (JP, 29 April 2002).

Street justice must not be taken lightly in Indonesia as it is often fatal. The masses quite easily resort to mass hysteria as they lash out at petty criminals who invade their communities. Violence, cruelty and hatred have become a type of ritual (Subandi, 2001), and the arbitrary force of power is an accepted right with plenty of examples played out by the authorities in the public sphere (Ramdan, nd). In Bogor parents threatened to burn down a local school if 16 students found to be using drugs were not immediately expelled (JP, 20 April 2002). Citizens are mobilized to take the law into their own hands as official policy and form anti-drug campaigns within their community boundaries (Pikiran Rakyat, 11 February 2002; and pers. com., Feizae in his kampung 2002). In 2000, the Minister for Youth and Sport said that drug users may be dealt with through street justice giving official sanction to actions outside of the law (BeritaNAZA, 15 Mei 2000). Human rights abuses and intolerance are not widely debated beyond intellectual circles as homes of alleged dealers are burned down and users are hounded and beaten.

In East Jakarta 3 houses were destroyed and 9 burned because neighbors suspected drug activity. Two months before this extreme action was taken, the village head reported his suspicions to the police. Nothing happened. In frustration, street justice was served. Street justice is further supported by the governor of Jakarta swearing to fire any village head who allows his community to become a center for drug activity. Without reliable police support, community residents are encouraged to establish posts as centers for drug monitoring patrols (Pikiran Rakyat, 11 Feb. 2002; Gatra, 27 Nov. 2001). When drug users or dealers are caught, and they frequently are, they are turned over to the police, but not before they are beaten. In one community they are thrown into the fish pond behind the village head’s office. “This is not a form of torture. We see this in the pesantren (Islamic schools), where the residents are ritually bathed. Perhaps these too will become aware of their mistakes and repent,” Siswanto, the village head, says with hope. Also with the blessings of the governor, community leaders have begun hanging photographs on public billboards of residents who have died in drug-related circumstances, as “a lesson for other residents” (Gatra, 27 Nov. 2001).

Proactive movements have widespread public support, but all take a militant stance to manage what the authorities obviously cannot. GERAM (the People’s Anti-Addiction Movement) is comprised of 400 marshal arts fighters “ready to fight to the death in their jihad against drugs” (Gatra, 02/VI, 27 Nov. 1999). GANAS (Anti-Narcotics Movement) monitor court hearings and decorate the proceedings with anti-drug banners such as: Narcotics: society’s number one enemy (Suara Merdeka, 5 July 2001a). Both of these grass roots organizations take threatening acronyms for their names: GERAM means furious or raging and GANAS means cruel, wild, savage or vicious.

Much larger than GERAM or GANAS is GRANAT (the National Anti-Narcotics Movement; GRANAT means grenade in Indonesian), founded by Henry Yosodiningrat on 2 October 1999. Henry, a lawyer by trade, spent three years of his life trying to handle his son’s addiction to putaw. Initially, he sent his son to a pesantren (Islamic schools and the center for rehabilitation efforts. See below). But this failed. Henry then took his son on the Haj to Saudi Arabia as a cure but this failed too. It was at this point, after 3 years of multiple efforts that Henry realized that the “error was not in my son but the poison of the drug itself” (satulelaki.com/tokohcerdas/0,3043,00.html). In a vengeful rage, Henry lashed out against dealers and suppliers as a one-man army. He wrecked the homes of dealers, entering like an assassin, grabbing them, beating them black and blue, confiscating their stock and surrendering them to police. He even ran ‘competitions’ in the press awarding rupiah 500,000 to anyone who would give him information on drug dealers. Some 50 won the prize. Henry did not stop there. He also monitored trials too and was disgusted to see that these dealers and suppliers were never sentenced to more than 1 year in jail.

Henry founded GRANAT as an official organization on 28 October 1999. His ordeals and frustrations struck such a chord with other upper class Indonesians that his membership now includes generals, heads of police forces, lawyers, the director of customs at the airport, and scores of other celebrities. GRANAT has made quite a name for itself and now has 70 branches on 12 provinces. With thousands of volunteers, GRANAT searches out drug activity and reports perpetrators in action to police. They also have posts set up where residents can go to report suspicious activity.

The most militant of all such vigilante groups are the Islamic groups. Under such diverse banners as the Defenders of Islam Front, Hizbullah Front, the United Islamic Youth Front, the Movement to Uphold Islamic Unity, and more, these gangs attack so-called centers of sin such as discos, night clubs, brothels, cafes through actions referred to in Indonesian as sweeping. Often they are in uniforms of white or black with faces covered like ninja warriors and they carry swords, scythes, and clubs. They prepare themselves for their war against sin by shouting,

We are going to war and putting our lives on the line. Whoever is not prepared to fight, step back now.

God is great! God is great! (Allah akbar!)

Are you all prepared to die?

We’re ready!

(Majalah Suara Hidayatullah, Jan. 2001).

With terror so commonly accepted (none of these Ninjas have been arrested for the damage they do raising speculation of police endorsement), issues of guilt or innocence, victim or perpetrator, user or dealer, are never considered. Prior to an attack and way into the night afterwards, they can be seen riding around town crowded in the back of trucks celebrating their victory waving bloodied swords in the air and shouting “Allah Akbar!”

None of the dilemmas inherent in drug prevention – abstinence versus responsible use, drug education versus skills training, treatment versus incarceration, education versus legalization, and especially the various methods of harm reduction – have been thought through in Indonesia. Instead, the lack of political will and the general state of weakness lead to such a proliferation of excesses: emotional responses and violence on one end and helplessness, silence, and lots of praying on the other. Public dialogs emphasize the problems, never the solutions. Powerlessness prevails and no sane response to the issue is under consideration.

Rehabilitation Indonesian Style

There are people with the heart to work in the field of addiction, and yet have no knowledge. And there are people with knowledge, but no heart… and there are people who have neither knowledge nor heart to work in the field of addiction. Of the latter, Indonesia has the most. As far as they are concerned, money is the only thing that matters. (Joyce Djaelani, Director, Yayasan Kita rehabilitation Center, 1999)

With the drug epidemic raging, Indonesians continue to search for creative and not so creative ways of dealing with this colossal problem. In a society overrun by get-rich-quick schemes, but where 40% of the population live in absolute poverty, with a history based on a myth of mutual support, but where the leadership display mainly greed and corruption, rehabilitation processes reflect similar discrepancies. From a horribly cynical perspective, drug treatment programs are surely a goldmine for many with costs of treatment ranging from around $100 per month to $2,000 per week in a country with an average per capita income of $400 per month. Before 1998 in Jakarta there were no rehabilitation centers except for the one Drug Dependency Hospital founded in 1972 with 30 regular and 3 VIP beds. By 1999 10 private centers opened to care for drug users, and by 2001, there were already 40 unlicensed, unregulated private centers (Reid, et al, 2002). In the days before rehab became big business, either the police or the pesantren (Islamic schools) had been the primary centers for drug addiction rehab. Both used incarceration as their main intervention, but the latter added religious indoctrination. What is apparent in most current approaches, however, is the basic lack of concern for the social and psychological aspects of addiction. Most programs deal only with the physical aspects, in effect rejecting notions of individuality, popular culture, human rights, or social contexts in which these youth exist on a daily basis. Despite Indonesian rehab programs suffering an 85% to 90% failure rate (Solo Aktual, 2000; JP, 26 April, 2002), programs compete in the mass media to tout their various ways of ‘curing’ addicts. Creativity abounds as methods reveal various attitudes and beliefs about society, youth, and notions about drug addiction itself.

Rehabilitation in Indonesia falls into three distinct categories: traditional approaches, religious approaches, and modern approaches. The traditional approaches are those which are based on folk knowledge and popular culture beliefs; the religious interventions focus on prayer; and modern approaches are those devised by medical and educated professionals based on adaptations from western approaches. All, however, are shaped by local ways of meaning.

Modern Approaches

The most obvious difference between modern and other types of treatment lies in the detoxification process, long thought to be the only work needed in addiction recovery (Djaelani, 1999). The modern approach treats the symptoms of addiction through a heavy medication detoxification process. Thus, the withdrawal symptoms are masked by sedation, while mostly neglecting to treat the mental, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of an individual.

The lack of understanding of not just addiction but also the detox process is obvious in common local practices. Stories of local therapists administering high doses of medication to ‘blank out’ addicts so they could be hypnotized into recovery are common. Other therapists use opium antagonist substances (i.e. Naltrexone, Naloxone) to work with any form of addiction – not just opiates. Rapid Detoxification with Naltrexone has been used with “people addicted to methampethamine and marijuana in addition to putaw, which can be quite dangerous” (Djaeleni, 1999). The classification of marijuana as an opiate in Indonesian law is likely the cause for such a mistake, although there is no information on what results if opium antagonists are used without opiates in the system.

Prof Dr. Dadang Hawari, one of the leading drug rehabilitation practitioners in Indonesia, runs detox programs that vary from one to seven days – “depending on the financial abilities of the patient” (http://isp.commerce.net.id/nasa/anaza5.html). In Dr. Hawari’s program, the patients are given ‘psycho-pharmaceutical antidotes’, while also infused with vitamins and nutritious foods. “Within one or two days, the suggestive drug dependence termed sakaw will disappear,” Dadang said.

These initial detox stages are usually carried out in hospitals, where patients are heavily sedated and given very high doses of analgesics, anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants, and opium antagonists (Naloxone or Naltrexone). Once the patient awakes from the initial dose, they are given medications that keep them asleep for a week. After this time it is assumed the patient is freed from the ‘toxic effects of the drugs’, would no longer feel sakaw, and would show negative laboratory tests.

Now the treatment moves into the stabilization process which, in Dr. Hawari’s program, lasts another two weeks. In this phase, the patient is guarded constantly by family members or hospital staff to prevent their leaving the compound and falling to the temptations lurking outside. Religious lessons are also provided, depending on the patient’s faith. After three weeks, the patient is deemed cured, provided their urine tests are clean. Those patients who cannot afford the overnight process may chose daycare but they are forbidden from driving alone in their cars for 3 months, and they are required to have regular medical check-ups. Following the initial 3 weeks, patients can elect to stay a further 3 months at a pesantren. For 2 years following treatment, patients are expected to attend silaturachmi or ‘good relationship’ meetings through which their progress can be monitored. This program costs US $1,000 (http://isp.commerce.net.id/nasa/alainlain3.html).

Detoxification from putaw (heroin) and shabu-shabu (crystal methamphetamine) is considered relatively uncomplicated in Indonesia. After a wide range of time frames, varying from one to seven days under heavy sedation, the most difficult part of withdrawal (sakaw) is past. The mental cravings of second stage recovery are far more difficult to deal with, but seem to be approached quite universally through religious indoctrination. Meanwhile, it is not the getting-off drugs that is the main problem in the recovery process; it is staying off drugs (see also the JP, 3 April 2002). According to Dr. Harawi, however, it is the type of therapy one goes through that determines how successful the process will be (http://isp.commerce.net.id/nasa/anaza4.html).

Few of the modern programs offer more than a cursory maintenance program, which gives evidence for a rather different sense of the individual in society than that found in western therapy. The Narcotics Anonymous type of program is fairly new to Indonesia and very limited in its sphere because of this fundamental difference in notions of selfhood. Today, NA is limited to the Jakarta area and the majority of members are ‘globalized’, fluent-English-speaking youths. Expatriate teenagers who had problems with putaw started the first NA meeting in Jakarta on April 1, 1997, and only recently have meetings been held in the Indonesian language (JP, 11 July, 1999). Since it is still inappropriate culturally to focus on oneself in conversation (especially among the Javanese, see Berman, 1998 for a study of interaction strategies and problems among urban Javanese women), only the most westernized of Indonesians would be suited to such a type of focus group. Ironically, these, the most wealthy and internationalized of Indonesians also have access to the only free ongoing support and aftercare program available for recovery.

Religious Approaches

By far the best known rehabilitation center in Indonesia is Suryalaya in West Java. This is a pesantren or Islamic boarding school which has been active in drug and delinquency rehabilitation for over 20 years and is the one center most addicts I interviewed aspired to attend – once they decide to quit[7]. The center is called Inabah which is an Arabic word meaning returning to the correct path. The overall method employed at Inabah is called dzikrullah: moving closer to God. The program takes between three to six months and costs around $100 per month, although waivers can be arranged. “We heal people with the help of Allah” is what the staff say and it is into the hands of Allah that all is ultimately weighed. At Inabah, the ultimate goal for residents is to clear their minds of all their problems, all their personal issues, and all their real life concerns. “We don’t think about anything except how to be closer to God”, explains Tono, an 18 year old who had been addicted to SS.

When a new resident arrives, they are greeted by the director himself, a Kyai, or spiritual leader, who handles detox through traditional beliefs in the anti-poison and healing effects of coconut milk and honey. Through the drink and reciting prayers, the Kyai can ‘bring them back to their senses’ (see also Antariksa, 2002:55-58). “After that, standing before the Kyai, I felt the weight of my sins deeply. I also felt calmer after being here for a while”, explains Tono. In addition to this traditional antidote, the pesantren uses another ‘traditional’ method: chains. Those still sakaw and those who try to escape are chained to their beds until they submit to the power of the practice (pers. comm. from a successful ‘graduate’ of the program, Bob Y., 2001).

The main component of the rehabilitation is the mandi tobat, a 2 am daily ritual of repentance through bathing in cold holy water and reciting prayers. As the director Kyai Hanafiah explains: “People who are addicted to drugs, actually their bodies and souls are overheated and limp. Addiction is not just a physical problem, but also a spiritual one. Because of this they need to be cleansed and refreshed with water that has been blessed with prayers.” New recruits who object to this bathing or will not get out of bed are doused right there in their beds, dragged to the bathroom, and their heads are shoved in and out of the water. Obviously they will quickly submit to the routine.

Prayer is, however, the main ingredient. A daily schedule for activities at Inabah reads as follows:

8pm – dinner

9pm – to rooms, reciting dzikir, praises to God until sleep

2am – mandi tobat

3am-6am – pray = to fight your own desires is a form of jihad

6am – breakfast

7am – sports

7:30 onwards – bathe and prayer

12 – lunch

2pm – rest until 3 pm

3pm – required prayer, chanting, reading from Koran until dinner.

Kyai can guarantee that his patients will be healthy once they are ready to leave. While he admits they cannot control for what happens after the patients leave, the Kyai states that “we prepare for this by covering everything while they are in residence here. That is our strength. We help the santri (student of Islam) to develop weapons which become parts of their own bodies, to help them return to a normal life” (Antariksa, 2002:58). These weapons then consist of faith and improving one’s relationship with God.

Traditional Approaches: Chinese Herbs

Of the numerous medicinal herbs used as addiction remedies, Mr. Chen’s treatment is widely advertised on TV and in the print media. Mr. Chen uses Chinese herbs as the basis of his intervention. The patient is given a treatment package for Rupiah 8 million (approx. $US 800). “Guaranteed healing. Within one week, a complete recovery,” reports the energetic, 60-year-old when I visited him at this office in West Jakarta. “No need for therapy,” he said. “These tablets are taken orally six times a day: four times taking black colored tablets, and two times a day for the red tablets”. These medicinal herbs function to clean all toxins out of the body through urine. Although not clinically tested, Chen claims to have sold 500 packages per month. The buyers tend to be wealthy children of senior government officials and celebrities.

One report I found on Chinese herbs (this one from a Mr. Teguh’s herbal remedy) as treatment was from the Slank musicians:

this stuff is potent! Magical! Each time you swallow 10 pills 4 times a day. Its not a direct healing but a process. At least the desire for putaw disappears. You’re strengthened further by a belief in yourself. You’re healed! But the important thing is, while on the pills, abandon your friends who still use (Pay, guitarist from Slank in Tabloid-Citra, 2000).

Pay also helped BimBim Slank:

Medical treatments? I have tried them all. There were results. The nausea, the gnawing pain disappeared. But as soon as I regained consciousness, the need had disappeared but the desire for putaw remained. One day Pay came to my home after he was already cured. It was Pay who told me about Mr. Teguh’s remedy. Alhamdulillah, I was cured of my addiction (Tabloid-Citra, 2000).

Tenaga Dalam (Inner Spiritual Strength)

The Hikmatul Iman Foundation (Pikiran Rakyat, 25 March, 2002) offers a 10 day in-patient service that takes a two-fold approach: strengthen the body and the spirit. Costs are steep and graded between first and second class accommodation and treatment: $570 for class I; $475 for class II. The detox process uses young coconut milk and medicinal herbs, roots, and whole milk to neutralize the effects of the drug’s poisons. In addition, they use electromagnetic currents to channel the body’s own inner strength and metaphysical strength. Through breathing exercises, one’s inner strength can be mobilized and the addition of electromagnetic current therapy can bring the patient back to consciousness and help increase concentration.

The second phase is what they call ‘brainwashing’. This means to erase the negative memories of addiction that drive the patient to crave drugs even after the physical dependency has been eased. This process is accomplished through the laying on of hands. The practitioner can touch the back of a patient’s head and alter memories through a build-up of inner and metaphysical strength that is then channeled into the patient.

Psychological therapy is intended to return a sense of spiritualism and awareness through religious activities. Further, this process can cure any illness because it is based on nerve system cell regeneration through electromagnetic therapy, which is further supported through mental and spiritual renovation.

Social therapy assists the patient to return to society through helping them create a detailed agenda for their daily activities, devise a plan for their future, and adhere to the norms and laws of society.

Despite a mushrooming of private centers throughout Indonesia, the majority of rehabilitation is handled individually. With hundreds of stories available in the press and dozens I have collected myself from youths in 1999-2001, stories like Ambar’s are the most typical (Suara Merdeka, 5 July 2001). In addition to the support of a loved one, usually a wife or mother[8], they often contain an element of the supernatural. Ambar ran an illegal gambling den and was addicted to SS to the extent where he suffered from extreme paranoia. Ambar had a wife who “was very patient and always reminded me of God”. Because he wasn’t responding, one day she mentioned his mother. “When I thought about my mother, I couldn’t stop crying. After that I felt calm. There was this liquid, maybe it was the SS. It came out of my skull. After that I was able to give up SS”. As Ambar insists, it was his desire to quit that got him through the ordeal with the help of his mother’s spirit.


This brief overview of the drug epidemic in Indonesia has attempted to explore the undercurrents of youth drug use and addiction from its political foundation, the popular cultural influences on youth, styles or trends of drug use, the societal move toward prevention through street justice, and the various means of rehabilitation currently in practice. Not unlike America, much of the public understanding of drugs and drug use is based on mythology rather than research, political purpose rather than real life, and scape-goatism rather than soul-searching. Everyone blames the 1997 crisis for all of the nation’s ills and by default, it is the root cause of the drug epidemic also. The media blames parents, broken homes, teenage depression, and weakness of character. Religious leaders blame globalization and anti-Islamic forces. Politicians blame the military or opposition forces. Liberals blame the conservative Suhartoist forces. Henry Yosodiningrat blames the drug itself. All agree that drugs can cast spells that lure hapless victims, create an epidemic of death and destruction, and drag children down into the depths of debauchery and decay.

While there is no doubting the fact that a great many lives are tragically destroyed through substance abuse, current drug policy in Indonesia assures that far more will be harmed if not society itself. No policy based on emotionalism rather than rationalism will have positive effects on the nation. The negation of the rights of the individual, the failure of due process of law, and the hypocrisy of leadership, whether in street justice, rehabilitation, or political practice, will always guarantee a surfeit of youths turning to that cuek lifestyle. Demonizing drugs assures that underlying causes remain misunderstood and shapes weak and ineffective rehabilitation, that resembles an exorcism more than an effective intervention. Negating individual rights and responsibility also means no harm reduction policies, peer support, or lay health workers will be implemented to prevent the spread of disease or test the quality of substances that often enough contain poisons. Instead, Indonesia faces its problems by throwing blame everywhere but at herself.

A major health problem such as this one requires serious research so that policy makers and interventionists know exactly what they are dealing with. Yet, this is not the case with Indonesia where studies are only done with patients in rehabilitation centers (Reid et al, 2002). None of the numerous sources I have examined in Indonesia discuss the popular cultural aspect of drug use, the fact of substance use (i.e., cigarettes, alcohol, pills, and ganja) as ‘bachelor’ (i.e., male-bonding) behavior, the trendiness of ineks, putaw or SS, the attractiveness of thinness or the excitement of energy boosts and SS as the means of achieving them, or the counter-cultural aspects of drug use as the personification of cuek behavior. What they all seem to forget is that drug and alcohol use have a centuries old history in Indonesia and that they always have been a significant aspect of social interaction. None mention the boredom, the disaffection, the unemployment, and general state of cuek that has infected a great many youth from all classes and backgrounds, who reject the current state of affairs and the corruption and incompetence of the elite, the courts, the authority. Far too many youth tell me that they have no alternatives for creating a decent life for themselves. Apathy and fatalism rule their lives and they use drugs because there is nothing else to do. “Live or die, its all the same”, Jimi, a tattoo-covered, punk-rocker, putaw addict from East Jakarta explains. Youths claim that they fully recognize they are being manipulated by drugs, but they add, so too are they manipulated by the authority, the elite forces within a hierarchical society that always has considered the masses ignorant and in need of patriarchal control. These abuses of power are supported by interpretations of ‘traditional’ culture that manipulate the masses through its narrow limitations and constraints on what it means to be an Indonesian. But the public debate on drugs obscures all of these reasons.

The undermining of ‘traditional’ culture, the crisis, unemployment, migration to cities, rampant inequalities are said to be the main reasons for youth drug use in most areas. Yet they were all created by national policy. In New York too, the rise of substance abuse in the inner city was said to be helped along by the standard problems: weakened family structure, congregation of large numbers of unsupervised youth, high levels of unemployment, and the desire for status and identity among people without ties to the mainstream of society (Wallace, 1998). Yet, the very breakdown of community (through gentrification, building highways and malls, as a few examples), the Zero Tolerance approach taken by so many schools, and the racist sentiments underlying urban politics create the very factors that support teen alienation, frustration, and drug use. Yet where the UNDP insists “People use drugs because they are poor and have limited opportunities” (UNDP, June 2001), they are hugely mistaken and maintaining a ‘blame the victim’ perspective. At least in Indonesia, the shocking level of greed and corruption among the ruling elite prevents a majority of the population from achieving much more than a subsistence lifestyle. The powerlessness and hopelessness that emerge are not the byproducts of poverty but an intentioned policy of disempowerment in the name of national development.

Indonesia has no action plan and no real strategy beyond the scare tactics and the promotion of street justice, which shoves responsibility for a serious policy failure onto those who are least capable of wielding such a burden. As with other social mobilization efforts, these words are just as empty as those of the police or the court officials who amass personal fortunes through the drug epidemic. With a further epidemic of losses such as trust, safety, truth, cooperation, creativity, affection, and leadership, Indonesia faces her problems with strong-arm tactics rather than trust, aggression rather than dialog, and prohibition rather than any notion of harm reduction. As long as Indonesia maintains her dictatorial approach to the problem, it will never be understood or solved. Just like the economic crisis is not the root cause of the current set of problems but rather a culmination of many years of bad policy, drugs too are not the root cause of moral decay but rather a response to it.

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[1] Yet there is a flip side to all this chaos that incessantly appears in the media. Most of it rarely affects everyday life – or at least not for long – and Indonesians often say that chaos is nothing. “We have always had chaos. Look at our history. For us its normal” (pers. com., Dr. Lamid, Athonk, and others, 2002).

[2] During a Cabinet meeting that focused on combating drugs, President Megawati ordered all public servants, including Cabinet ministers, to undergo urine tests to prove they are free from illegal drugs (Jakarta Post, 16 Mar. 2002). This in no way means testing will actually occur.

[3] Compare this to the largest women’s penitentiary in Indonesia, Tangerang, where 60% of inmates have been convicted for drug-related crimes and most continue their drug-using activity inside (JP, 21 April 2002).

[4] Perhaps the only reason why there is so much talk about the violence and youth problems now is because it can be talked about! The easing of censorship restrictions in the post-Suharto press has permitted a far more open media in which to criticize and complain. In truth, situations have been far worse in the past, most notably the 1965-66 period of presidential transition.

[5] As early as 1617 Dutch explorers made note of opium use. The Dutch East India Company set up opium supply agreements with sultans and Raffles (1817) too makes note of local practices ranging from opium to marijuana, and from beetlenut to local alcoholic brews. In the early 20th century, Java overtook Peru in coca exports, the Javanese coca leaf being 1.5% cocaine and more potent than the South American variety (see Yatim, et al, 2000; Raffles, 1817).

[6] According to health officials, 22 percent of 200 prisoners who took HIV/AIDS tests at Salemba Penitentiary in Central Jakarta tested positive (JP, 5 April 2002).

[7] Most state they will quit once they get married and have children – but prior to marriage, there is just no reason to quit using drugs and alcohol (pers. comm. cah-cah Pondok Gede, Jakarta and Yogya Slankers, 2000).

[8] Fathers, as all have reported, beat their sons upon learning of his drug activity and often throw them out of the house (pers. comm.. Bob, Rhinno, Jejal stories, Tono, dl

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