If you were charged with cannabis possession in Indonesia today, you would be facing 4-12 years in prison. This Southeast Asian nation has some of the strictest laws in the world and authorities do not yet consider cannabis a “soft drug” or even a potential medicine at this point.
Despite that fact, Indonesia has an ongoing movement led by brave individuals who want to see the government recognize cannabis as a medicine. Green Flower spoke with Dania Putri, who is an Indonesian drug policy consultant involved with the ongoing battle to end cannabis prohibition in her country.
Green Flower: Can you outline your involvement with drug policy progression in Indonesia and Southeast Asia?
Dania Putri: I’m a drug policy consultant currently working with the Transnational Institute. I mainly work on international drug policy, and on developments around legal cannabis regulation. My advocacy work focuses on the promotion of legal regulation models that are based on social justice, human rights, and harm reduction principles.
GF: How did you get involved in this work?
DP: I got interested in drug policy when I was in university in the Netherlands, around 2013-2014. That was around the same year in which I became more ‘acquainted’ with cannabis. I was studying International Public Management at the time and was very much interested in [the politics behind] why cannabis became prohibited in the first place, and more importantly, which actors have profited and have been harmed by these dynamics. I quickly learned that the whole system of drug prohibition is simply another vehicle of structural oppression.
I began looking into cannabis history and policies in Indonesia in the summer of 2015, when I started working at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. I went to my hometown Jakarta that year and met with cannabis advocacy group Lingkar Ganja Nusantara and a few other organizations working on drug policy to gather as much data as possible around cannabis history, use, and policy in the country. But it was in Leiden and Amsterdam where I found some of the most interesting details about cannabis history in Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies, of course. So I wrote this publication [cannabis in Indonesia].
It’s also fascinating to learn that, similarly to other parts of the world, cannabis prohibition in Indonesia has colonial roots — because it was initiated by the Dutch colonial government around the 1920s. Traditions involving cannabis, on the other hand, are much older than prohibition itself.
I [now] help advocates in Indonesia locate relevant and up-to-date scientific studies and policy-related literature on cannabis, and provide advice on how such materials can be best used for our advantage.
GF: What is the current status of cannabis in Indonesia?
DP: Cannabis is in the strictest Schedule I of Indonesia’s narcotics law (Law No. 35 Year 2009), meaning that it can only be used (highly restrictively) for research purposes only. But getting licenses to conduct scientific research involving cannabis is still very difficult.
It’s used as medicine but of course illegally. Historical archives show many examples of medicinal uses in the past to treat conditions like asthma, bile secretion, chest pain, diabetes-like conditions, etc., some of which are still known to this day, though I’m not sure how prevalent these uses are among local communities.
There are also other forms of uses, like culinary and agricultural uses. However, none of these are legally recognised as cultural rights or anything like that. In other words, it is subject to the heaviest form of control there is according to the narcotics law.
GF: Is there any hope the Indonesian government will change their attitude toward medical cannabis at this time?
DP: Public discussions around medicinal cannabis have grown in frequency, especially since around 2017 after the Fidelis’ case. Fidelis is a man who cultivated cannabis (more than 30 plants, so according to Indonesia’s narcotics law the punishment could be as harsh as life imprisonment or death penalty) to produce cannabis-based medicine for his wife, who suffered from Syringomyelia. At some point, Fidelis got arrested, and while he was in jail, his wife died. The story got so much public attention and sympathy that in the end, Fidelis only got a five-month sentence.
Since then, more and more public figures have spoken up about cannabis prohibition and the potential benefits of legally regulating medicinal cannabis.
Last year, a parliamentarian even proposed legal cannabis exports. There was some drama as well a few months ago around a decree issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, in which ‘ganja’ was added to the list of medicinal plants fostered as commodities under the Ministry. See the decree, which was unfortunately retracted a few days after it went public.
Meanwhile, cannabis activism in Indonesia has also expanded in the past years, while other drug policy organizations have also included medicinal cannabis in their advocacy narratives more and more. My take on this was published with Inside Indonesia here.
GF: Is Indonesia further ahead than other countries in Asia or are they behind in regards to cannabis reform?
DP: Good question. This is the thing with cannabis policy reform, in Southeast Asia in particular, sometimes we can’t tell exactly what’s going to happen.
Like in Thailand, what happened in December 2018 turned out to be a bit of a surprise. In comparison to countries like Thailand and India, surely Indonesia is far behind in terms of cannabis reform. But what constitutes a good or progressive kind of reform, right?
Even though in Thailand they already have a legal regulatory framework in place, people who use cannabis without a medical prescription, even though they use it for therapeutic ends, are still prone to criminalization. In India, the story is much more complicated. In many states there, bhang (a traditional cannabis brew / juice-like drink) is not prohibited and kind of tolerated, while cannabis-based medicines have also been produced and prescribed domestically. The law, however, is still pretty strict, though there’s a lot of activism going on.
GF: What do you believe will be the future of cannabis in Indonesia?
DP: In Indonesia, it’s exciting to see that public opinion regarding cannabis seems to be moving in the right direction. People are becoming more well-informed about medicinal cannabis, and more skeptical about prohibition, and also about a punitive approach to drugs in general. Civil society activism is also strong, which is promising.
Legislative reform may be a long way off, but I have a feeling that we’ll soon be able to see incremental changes which will slowly create more and more room for cannabis to be used as a source of medicine, and perhaps even as a source of livelihoods, for farmers and people working in rural areas for example. We just need to be careful that communities who are affected by cannabis and cannabis policies— like patients, people who use cannabis for ‘non-medical’ purposes, cannabis growers, etc. — are involved in the process of developing policies related to cannabis.
I think we need to be careful that in pushing for and going through legislative reform, we have to make sure that we create a large space for communities, and not only for for-profit corporations.
Meanwhile, the fact that Indonesia is a country where traditional and herbal medicine remains important is a good thing in this regard, in my view.
I hope future cannabis laws in Indonesia favor not only pharmaceutically manufactured medicines, but also provide room for people and communities to produce their own products, provided that they’re given access to up-to-date information, education, and technical assistance, so that they can do so responsibly and safely.
I also hope that the Indonesian government, in cooperation with other actors in the country, begins conducting scientific research involving all things cannabis, ideally starting by studying local cannabis chemovars in the country. It would be fascinating to break down the cannabinoid profiles of these chemovars and explore what opportunities there are for therapeutic, industrial, and other uses.
Reforming cannabis laws also means contributing to the process of decolonization. European colonialism in Asia has not only starved, enslaved, and killed millions on this continent, but it has also led to the erasure of cultural practices and identities, including centuries to millennia-old healing and cultural rituals involving cannabis. As I said above, cannabis prohibition in Indonesia was initiated by the Dutch colonial government — the same goes for other formerly colonized countries like South Africa, Angola, India, etc. Reforming unjust cannabis laws means we’re continuing the process of liberating ourselves.
Finally, I believe that any kind of cannabis reform needs to be complemented with a policy of decriminalization of ALL forms of cannabis use and possession for personal use. If possible, this should include other drugs too. This means we should just stop arresting people for simply consuming and carrying drugs that they consume individually.