Tue, 11 Apr 2000

RI needs clearer vision on drugs

Gwynne Dyer's article It's high time for the U.S. to stop war against drugs in The Jakarta Post of April 5 criticizes drug prohibitionism.

He contends that the U.S. is coercing developing countries into joining a "futile and destructive crusade" against drugs which are culturally unacceptable to American voters. He also says that criminalizing drugs creates a lucrative, violent, illegal drug trade and fills prisons unnecessarily.

However, it does not follow that legalizing more drugs is a good idea. All drugs can disturb the health and behavior of users. This includes legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, drugs abused by athletes and some drugs prescribed as pacifiers or that are money-spinners for doctors. Also, drugs can afflict families behaviorally and financially. With such a large and complex problem, one cannot expect any strategy to simultaneously give the ideal outcome for the individual, the family and the local and international community.

In any case, in Indonesia, urbanization, unemployment and the legacy of recent riots ensure that the rise in violent crime will continue with or without drugs. Unlike America, Indonesia has no money to build and maintain extra prisons so existing prisons will become overcrowded and breed further violence and crime. Meanwhile sensational crime reporting heightens the public's anxiety.

Eventually, people will adjust by building more secure homes, not carrying around bags full of cash, restricting their movements at night and so on. In the meantime, many people are acquiring firearms. The authorities make little effort to stop the gun trade since the police and military naturally believe in security through force. Ultimately, however, the proliferation of guns harms the quality of life, especially for the poor, more than drugs, poor sanitation, cramped houses or anything else.

The loudest political response to the crime surge up to now has been a call for greater use of the death penalty. Executing heroin traffickers alleviates society's sense of helplessness and provides judges with potential extra income but institutionalizes killing.

Indonesia needs clearer vision, direction and priorities in facing the inescapable problems of drugs, crime and punishment.