The drug scene in Indonesia is something of a contradiction. Indonesian drug laws are among the strictest in Southeast Asia, yet the use of illegal drugs is relatively high in some parts of the country.
Indonesia's war on drugs is somewhat compromised by the country's size and island geography. The Indonesian anti-narcotics agency BNN does not have enough resources to monitor the country's endless miles of coastline, through which marijuana, ecstasy, meth, and heroin manage to slip through with regularity.
This should not be taken as a green light to indulge, though. The Indonesian authorities are ready to make an example of foreigners who use illegal drugs in their jurisdiction. Bali's Kerobokan Prison houses plenty of foreigners who thought they could game the system and lost the bet.
Penalties for Drug Use in Indonesia
Under Indonesian Law No. 35/2009, the country's controlled substances list is divided into three different groups. Chapter XV of the 2009 law lays down the penalties for each group, while the Appendix lists all the drugs that fall into each group. Possession and trafficking of all the drugs listed in the Appendix are illegal unless undertaken by people or companies approved by the government.
A PDF file of the law in English can be downloaded here: English Version of the Indonesian Narcotics Law - International Drug Policy Consortium.
Group 1 drugs are viewed by the Indonesian government as therapeutically useless with a high potential for causing addiction. Group 1 drugs merit the weightiest sentences: life imprisonment for possession, and the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers.
- Possession is punishable by 4 to 12 years of imprisonment, and fines of IDR 800 million to 8 billion. If the drugs exceed 1 kilogram (for raw drugs like marijuana) or 5 grams (for processed drugs like heroin and cocaine), a maximum punishment of life imprisonment may be imposed.
- Trafficking is punishable by 5 to 15 years of imprisonment and fines of IDR one billion to ten billion. If the volume of drugs exceeds 1 kilogram (for raw drugs) or 5 grams (for processed drugs), the death penalty may be imposed.
- Drugs in Group 1, a partial list: heroin, cocaine, marijuana, hashish, mescaline, MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, amphetamine, methamphetamine, opium and its derivatives
Group 2 drugs are seen by the law as useful for therapeutic purposes, but dangerous due to their high addictive potential.
- Possession is punishable by 3 to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of IDR 600 million to 5 billion. If the volume of drugs exceeds 5 grams, 5 to 15 years' imprisonment may result.
- Trafficking is punishable by 4 to 12 years of imprisonment and fines of IDR 800 million to eight billion. If the volume of drugs exceeds 5 grams, the death penalty may be imposed.
- Drugs in Group 2, a partial list: morphine, methadone, oxycodone, pethidine, and hydromorphone
Group 3 drugs are seen as therapeutically useful and moderately addictive, but not to the same degree as the drugs in Group 1 or 2.
- Possession is punishable by 2 to 7 years of imprisonment and a fine of IDR 400 million to 3 billion. If the volume of drugs exceeds 5 grams, 3 to 10 years' imprisonment may result.
- Trafficking is punishable by 3 to 10 years of imprisonment and fines of IDR 600 million to five billion. If the volume of drugs exceeds 5 grams, imprisonment of 5 to 15 years may be imposed.
- Drugs in Group 3, a partial list: codeine, dihydrocodeine, and buprenorphine
The penalties listed here are not absolute; Indonesian judges may take mitigating circumstances into account and impose a lighter sentence as a result.
Rehabilitation and Appeal
The law permits accused drug users to be sentenced to rehabilitation instead of prison time. Article 128 of Indonesian Law No. 35/2009 allows underage users (those under 17 years of age) to be sentenced to rehabilitation instead. A 2010 ruling issued by the Indonesian Supreme Court lays down the rules by which rehabilitation may be chosen instead of prison, including a maximum amount of drugs in each group that need to have been found on the user at the time of the arrest.
Should a death sentence be imposed, prisoners are allowed to appeal to the district High Court, then the Supreme Court. Failing that, a death row prisoner may appeal to the President of Indonesia for clemency.
Appeal is a double-edged sword; higher courts are allowed to increase sentences, as they did with four members of the Bali Nine whose sentences were upgraded by the Bali High Court from life in prison to death (these sentences were knocked back to life imprisonment by the Indonesian Supreme Court).
Taking Prescribed Medicines to Indonesia
Prescription medicines are a grey area for travelers to Indonesia. On one hand, certain prescription medicines are listed as restricted drugs under Indonesian law. On the other, the law allows tourists to bring controlled medicines if accompanied by a legal prescription and a doctor’s letter.
There are very real consequences to forgetting these loopholes. In November 2019, an Australian man was arrested in Bali for bringing his prescription ADHD medication without an accompanying prescription.
Australian citizens can request for a letter from the Indonesian Embassy that states their medication for declaration purposes. This does not offer any legal cover or exemption from drug checks.
Citizens of all other countries should remember to bring their doctor’s letter and legal prescription—the name should match that of the boarding pass and passport, or else you’ll be in real legal hot water.
Drug Dealers in Kuta, Bali
Though the anti-drug laws in Bali are strict, drug dealers still operate with some impunity, especially around the Kuta area. Tourists have reported getting whispered solicitations for mushrooms and marijuana from locals in the vicinity. It was one such solicitation that got this Australian teenager in trouble. He’d been offered about $25 in drugs by a street dealer—he accepted, and the narcotics police pounced on him afterward.
Sure, you might get a stealthy offer of drugs from some back-street drug dealer in Kuta, but said drug dealer is just as likely to be working with a narcotics cop in a drug sting. Be forewarned: should you ever find yourself on the receiving end of one of these whispered sales pitches, assertively walk away.
What to Do If You Are Arrested in Indonesia
While traveling in Indonesia, you are subject to Indonesian laws. For American citizens, the American Embassy in Indonesia is duty-bound to extend its assistance in the event of their arrest, but it cannot secure their release.
The American Embassy in Indonesia should be contacted in the event of an arrest: they can be reached at +62 21 5083 1000, ext. 0 (operator).
The American Consulate in Bali can also be reached if the arrest takes place there: call +62 361 233 605 during regular office hours. After hours and on holidays, call +081 133 4183 and ask for the duty officer.
An Embassy officer will brief you about Indonesia's legal system and provide you with a list of attorneys. The officer can also notify your family or friends of the arrest, and facilitate the transfer of food, money, and clothing from family or friends back home.
Notable Drug Arrests in Indonesia
Frank Amado, arrested in 2009, sentenced to death in 2010, awaiting appeal. Amado, a U.S. citizen, was found with 11 pounds of methamphetamine.
Schapelle Corby, arrested in 2005 was released on parole after nine years in prison for the nine pounds of cannabis found in her surfboard bag at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport. After a long and public ordeal, she was deported back home to Australia in May 2017.
The Bali Nine, arrested in 2005, sentenced to life imprisonment and death. Australian citizens Andrew Chan, Si Yi Chen, Michael Czugaj, Renae Lawrence, Tach Duc Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Norman, Scott Rush, Martin Stephens, and Myuran Sukumaran were involved in a scheme to smuggle 18 pounds of heroin to Australia. Chan and Sukumaran were the group's ringleaders and were meted the death penalty in 2015. The rest were sentenced to life in prison.
Unidentified Australian boy – a 14-year-old was caught with a quarter of an ounce of marijuana on October 4, 2011. Police captured him together with a 13-year-old friend after they emerged from a massage salon near Kuta Beach. The maximum sentence in his case would have been six years, but the judge decided to sentence him to two months, including time already served. He flew home to Australia on December 4.