Criminalizing cannabis in Indonesia might do more harm than good

Synthetic cannabinoids will continue to spread as long as cannabis remains illegal
Dania Putri & Tom Blickman
The Jakarta Post (Indonesia)
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Indonesia’s National Narcotics Board (BNN) together with the Health Ministry recently made a swift move to criminalize synthetic cannabinoids called “super tobacco”, also known as “Gorilla tobacco”, as part of their anti-narcotics efforts. However, synthetic cannabinoids will continue to spread as long as cannabis remains illegal. A better approach would be to develop a regulatory framework for the use and production of natural cannabis.

Synthetic cannabinoids have gained popularity in Indonesia shortly after President Joko Widodo pledged to intensify the war on drugs in the archipelago. Since then, cannabis seizures and eradication programs have increased. Amid shrinking supply, many users have turned to online markets for synthetic cannabinoids, sold as tobacco products with psychoactive effects similar to cannabis.

On Jan. 9, “Gorilla tobacco” - chemically identified as AB-CHMINACA - was included in the strictest Schedule I of Indonesia’s 2009 anti-narcotics law, along with 27 other substances. By taking this approach, the BNN neglects the possible “balloon effect” of adding this new layer of prohibition. Criminalizing one type of synthetic cannabinoids (or synthetic drugs and NPS in general) will simply encourage producers to adapt and find new or modified substances; allowing other (and possibly more dangerous) varieties to emerge.

Synthetic cannabinoids will continue to spread as long as cannabis remains illegal. A more strategic approach would be to develop a regulatory framework for the use and production of cannabis, which, according to the BNN in 2015, is still the most commonly used illicit drug in Indonesia.

Prior to designing and implementing a full legal scheme for cannabis use, sales, and production, it is imperative for the government – with the explicit blessing of the BNN and Health Ministry – to adopt a harm-reduction perspective on drug consumption.

Regardless of prohibition, there are always people who choose to use psychoactive substances, and more pragmatic policies should be designed to minimize risks of cannabis use.

Apart from the harm that cannabis may inflict on young people’s developing brains, or on individuals prone to certain mental illnesses, many of the risks associated with cannabis use in Indonesia – such as getting caught and arrested by police, being prosecuted, extorted, or jailed, or exposure to “harder” and synthetic drugs deceitfully marketed as cannabis – can be attributed to its illegal status.

With this in mind, the next step would be to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Decriminalization as an initial phase should reduce the economic and social burden brought about by cannabis prohibition (notably prison overcrowding, extortion and bribery), while providing time for the government to set up infrastructures for a more sophisticated form of regulation in Indonesia.

With regard to the supply side, the government could opt for an approach like the Cannabis Social Club (CSC) model practiced in Spain and Uruguay. CSCs can be formed by a group of individuals wishing to grow cannabis collectively and exclusively for personal consumption.

The clubs operate in a closed membership system, thus individuals wishing to join the club need to be referred by either an existing member or a doctor. The CSCs are also obliged to promote responsible cannabis use, and to ensure their products do not end up on the illicit market by keeping supply limited. CSCs should be managed on a nonprofit principle, and in the case of Indonesia, the clubs can initiate a contracting system with traditional cannabis growers, allowing these frequently neglected communities to be integrated into the formal economy.

In Indonesia, facilitating the emergence of CSCs will not only help undermine criminal networks that often increase the vulnerability of users, small-scale runners, and traditional growers, but will also curb the potential wave of commercialization that often goes along with regulation similar to that of tobacco and alcohol.

This would suit Indonesia as a cannabis-producing country and for its fondness of traditional collectivist values regarded as superior to the typically Western-style, profitmaking corporate culture.

In the meantime, while having the option to gather licensing fees from registered CSCs and simultaneously reducing the economic burden of anti-cannabis law enforcement efforts, the government can work together with experts, community organizations, and affected populations to build a more far-reaching regulatory system for medicinal use, for example by setting up facilities for clinical trials.

Small-scale and traditional farmers from cannabis-growing areas such as Lampung, Mandailing Natal, both in Sumatra, and others, should be included in this process, along with members of communities who are most knowledgeable of the use of cannabis as traditional medicine, whose centuries-old historical roots can be found from Aceh to Ambon in Maluku.

 The government can also improve the country’s health services to ensure that medicinal cannabis would benefit not only the rich and the powerful but also the economically less capable.

For many Indonesians, witnessing their government legalizing the long demonized ganja may now seem unimaginable. But with major reforms taking place in the United States, Canada and many Latin American countries such as Uruguay, and considering the recent hints of progress in Thailand, it is about time for Indonesia to embrace its deep cultural ties with cannabis, and opt for a form of regulation that is both fair and effective.


Dania Putri and Tom Blickman are researchers at the Transnational Institute (TNI), a global policy research institute, and authored Cannabis in Indonesia - Patterns in consumption, production, and policies. For more information about TNI’s Drugs & Democracy Programme, visit or Facebook @Drugsanddemocracy and Twitter @DrugLawReform.