Tue, 31 Oct 2000

Cocaine in Indonesia: Past or future?

By Chris W. Green

JAKARTA (JP): While we hear a lot about putaw (heroin) and shabu-shabu (methamphetamine) as the hard drugs of choice in Indonesia, the third member of this trio, cocaine, is less often mentioned.

And when it is, it is usually as an expensive drug used only by the rich, which is perhaps surprising, because only 70 years ago, Indonesia was the world's foremost exporter of coca leaves.

When we talk of cocaine, we usually think of Central and South America as being the source. And indeed, the coca bush is indigenous to the Andean region of South America. For centuries coca was grown there to satisfy the local demand from people who chew the leaves as a stimulant.

Exports first of leaves and then of processed cocaine started in the latter half of the 19th century. Of course in those days, it was not illegal; the best known product to use cocaine was Coca-Cola, which was strongly promoted as being alcohol-free!

Needless to say, Coca-Cola no longer contains even a hint of cocaine.

The main producers of coca leaves in those days were Peru and Bolivia. Exports from these countries rose steadily until the early 1900s, but then they started to suffer a sharp decline due to competition from a new source: Java.

There had been proposals to plant coca bushes in Java as early as 1854, but these were rejected, partly out of fear that the local population would start to use coca, as had happened in Peru.

However, the rise in world demand in the 1870s overcame the objections. Following experimentation, a Javanese plant was developed with leaves that contained about 1.5 percent cocaine, much higher than the South American product.

Exports of the leaves boomed, with over 1,000 tons of leaves being exported to Amsterdam for processing in 1912. And although this dropped off during World War I, by 1920 exports had again risen to 1,600 tons, equivalent to 25 tons of processed cocaine. By comparison, during its heyday in 1905, Peru only exported the equivalent of 22 tons of cocaine, while Bolivia never even reached 5 tons.

Global concern over drug use started to result in its international regulation in 1911, with the Hague Opium Conference. But it was not until the mid 1920s that drug laws started to be enforced in Europe, coinciding with public concern that caused a fall in demand. As a result, by 1935 exports from Java had fallen to less than 2 tons, with the worldwide total under 10 tons.

What happened after this is not so clearly documented, since production was driven underground and statistics are more difficult to come by. It seems unlikely that cultivation of coca bushes ever stopped in Java.

Cocaine had been consumed in Japan since at least 1915, and coca was cultivated in significant quantities in Formosa (Taiwan) from the 1920s while that island was under Japanese occupation. Japanese use of stimulants during World War II is well known, so it is not unlikely that production continued in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation.

Recently I was shown some fresh coca leaves, grown in the Yogyakarta area.

While demands on land, and perhaps surveillance by law enforcement authorities, may now preclude cultivation in such large quantities as before in Java, such barriers to production may not exist in other parts of the country.

Thus it would be foolhardy to assume that cocaine will always remain a 'premium' drug here. Indeed, experience in other parts of the world has often shown that action to restrict the supply of one drug has only resulted in the increase in availability of others, from other sources.

In the (indeed, unlikely!) event that smuggling of heroin into Indonesia was halted, or if other action reduced the supply, "commercial" pressures would result in an increase in locally- produced drugs, such as shabu-shabu and cocaine, to meet the demand. But other factors could also result in a change in patterns of use -- drug use can be driven by trends just as any other consumer product.

We should therefore be ready for such a change if and when it occurs. Addiction to cocaine, and especially "crack" is in some ways more difficult to treat than heroin addiction. And the medical treatment is different, both for withdrawal and for overdose.

Cocaine is no stranger to Indonesia. Let us not ignore the threat that it could once again pose.

(Acknowledgment: Much of the historical data for this article has been taken from the paper International traffic in coca through the early 20th century by David F. Musto, in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence 49, 1998).

-- The writer is an activist working with AIDS and drugs, including publishing BeritaNAZA, a monthly newsletter in Indonesian on drugs matters.