Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Youth heroin use

Jo Pickles

After the nausea passed, Agus (not his real name) said he felt invincible, so invincible. ‘Nothing could harm me anymore.’ For Agus, his first experience of putaw (low grade heroin) was the end point in a long chain of drug experimentation. Other highs and lows just didn’t compare to putaw.

Arrest rates, surveys and media reports all point to increased drug use in Indonesia. The government’s response has been to declare a war on drugs. This means that being a heroin addict today carries far more risk than when Agus began using in 1996. While cannabis, ecstasy and shabu-shabu (methamphetamine) are more widely used, it is heroin that has caused an increase in the number of deaths resulting from overdose, as well as higher rates of HIV infection.

War on drugs

In Indonesia, the war on drugs takes a two-pronged approach, targeting both supply and demand. Defending the nation against drugs has involved broad-based education campaigns, increased powers for the judiciary and a high-tech crime fighting capability.

It is a holy war, complete with propaganda posters that are thick with symbolic imagery. Visions of satan, death, anguish and deception attempt to deter young people from experimenting with illicit drugs.

Indonesia’s tough stance on drugs is reflected in the criminal justice system. A harsh new drug law was introduced in 1997 amidst a widespread popular panic about the growing use of illicit narcotics. Law enforcers are now authorised to shoot fleeing suspected drug smugglers and drug-related crimes are now punishable by the death penalty. There are currently 29 people on death row for drug dealing. Since the introduction of the new drug laws there has been a steady increase in the application of the death penalty and an increase in drug convictions across the board. Possession, dealing and smuggling currently contribute to over half the prison population of Java.

High-cost, high-security prisons are being built to segregate inmates with drug convictions from the rest of the prison population. The first correction facility for illicit drug crimes opened in Cipinang (East Jakarta) in 2003; two more have since opened and ten more are planned.

A culture in camouflage

Tough penalties, however, do not dissuade the desperate. The need to maintain their habit leads many young users to steal, deal and prostitute themselves. In doing so, they reinforce tabloid hype and social fears.

Yet within their circles, users are proud of the habits they acquire to maintain their addiction. ‘We have to be clever to find money to buy putaw.’ Users talk about junkie character traits which they see as a mix of confidence, intelligence, deceitfulness, stinginess and arrogance.

User culture is camouflaged by a unique vocabulary and secret meeting points that hide their illegal lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of user language revolves around drugs, ways of taking drugs and the people that play a part in their lives (police, dealers, junkies and gangsters).

Heroin addicts have a whole range of terms to talk about crime, which they describe as solna, ‘naughty solutions’ (from solusi nakal). It is a vocabulary with a perverse sense of humour. Nigerians, who are renowned for importing and dealing heroin, are named after the black eight ball in billiards (bola delapan).

Addicts also poke fun at the ‘clean’ mainstream. In Tantyo Bangun’s documentary Railraod Junkies the catch cry of Suharto’s New Order, gotong royong (mutual benefit), was used by one addict to describe stealing chickens from a neighbouring village to buy a fix.

But proud words and bravado thinly mask disappointment. Addicts often talk about their future disappearing after they get hooked and the shame of disappointing their families. In Tantyo’s documentary, one userdescribed how he had taken five years to complete his three year senior high school program. Another talked with regret about failing to achieve his childhood dream of becoming an army officer.

And the constant threat of arrest or capture is wearying. Mob bashings are not uncommon and are almost an accepted consequence of disobeying social conventions. ‘I take people’s bags, mobile phones and sometimes I meet my karma, I get beaten up by a mob.’

Heroin used to be an end-stage drug, but cheap prices and ease of accessibility have meant that these days many young Indonesians leapfrog almost immediately to heroin experimentation and addiction. Late junior and early senior high school are the times when most chronic addicts first tried putaw. Heroin is no longer a drug of the wealthy, instead it finds its addicts in all layers of society.

Railroad junkies

Jakarta’s overcrowded metropolitan train system is often used by addicts to get to drug trade areas. Significant price variation means users make lengthy daily journeys to purchase their fix. A quarter of a gram sells for Rp 130,000-140,000 (A$ 18-19) in Manggarai (Central Jakarta) compared to Rp 180,000 (A$ 25) not far away in Pasar Minggu (South Jakarta).

Railroad Junkies examines the lives of three heroin addicts, Oncom, Bagol and Ambon, who catch cross-city trains to buy and use drugs. After arriving at Manggarai train station the film shows Oncom disappearing through a hole in the fence at the back of Manggarai train station. From here, it is a right turn to get to Tenggulun, Manggarai’s notorious drug market. Oncom’s voice-over tells us that the drug traders of Tenggulun are not leather-clad gangsters, as one might expect, but ‘grandmothers’ trying to support their families by selling packets of putaw. A similar story is told in Tanjung Priok (North Jakarta) where whole blocks reportedly survive on the profits of the drug trade.

In addition to providing transport, the grimy train roofs offer a convenient place to get high. Shooting up on the roof top provides the added kick of being visible to the public yet paradoxically shielded from view. Through Tantyo’s lens, it is clear that the railroad junkies take great pleasure in this semi-public deviousness.

Next we see Bagol nodding off with his needle still dangling from a vein. Intravenous drug use has left its sting down his arm. Kelabang, the name for a centipede with sharp pincers and a mock claw tail, is the local term for track marks. It is an apt name for the bruised veins that crawl down the forearm from a purulent puncture mark at Bagol’s elbow.

Users may start off smoking putaw, but as their habit develops and becomes increasingly expensive, many turn to intravenous drug use. Although smoking provides a quick hit, precious fumes diffuse into the atmosphere and are exhaled, decreasing the opiate’s effect. In contrast, intravenous injection provides a much stronger sensation and delivers every granule to the bloodstream, making it an economical option. Ingestion and sniffing are rarely used as routes of administering putaw by long-term addicts.

It is not unusual to see scars across the wrists of street junkies. Consuming the blood released by making light slashes to the wrist is believed to re-release old heroin into the bloodstream and stave off withdrawals. If nothing else, this self-harm creates a new pain, distracting the mind from the sweats and aches of sakaw (withdrawals).


As the first rush wears off, Bagol withdraws the syringe and gives it to Ambon who lobs the needle over the side of the moving train into the long grass nearby. Ambon, like other users, fears a needle might incriminate him if he is stopped by the police. According to the 1997 drug laws, needles are drug paraphernalia and being caught carrying one can lead to arrest. For that reason users often try to get rid of or hide their needles soon after injecting.

Cost and scarcity mean that users often prefer to stow their equipment in the roofs and crevasses of street-side stalls for safekeeping. It is also possible to purchase a needle from the dealer when buying drugs. The cost is an extra Rp 5000 (A$ .70), but if the buyer doesn’t have enough cash, the dealer may lend out a second-hand spare.

The authorities’ tough stance on needles has had repercussions for health workers. Yayasan Pelita Ilmu (YPI), based in Jakarta, and Yayasan Hati-Hati (Denpasar) are two of the handful of NGOs that administer controversial needle exchange programs. Both have had their outreach workers detained by police while taking needles to clients. In December 2003, the National Narcotics Board (BNN) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the National Aids Commission, supporting the implementation of harm reduction and approved needle exchange programs. The MOU has made it safer for outreach workers to do their job. But NGOs must still work hard to promote needle exchange programs with local authorities and continue to do so every time a new local police chief is appointed.

In prisons, a lack of x-ray machines, perfunctory checks and easily bribed wardens mean that heroin is rife. Syringes, however, are bigger and harder to smuggle in and harder to hide during block sweeps. Ex-convicts report that a couple of needles may service an entire prison. Many recall using syringes so frequently worn that the plastic plunger had broken and been replaced with a home-made bamboo equivalent. As cleaning needles adds another step in the process (requiring extra time, sterile water and bleach) the spread of disease through intravenous drug use in prisons is rampant.

Patungan parties

Getting high together is a celebrated moment. Addicts from Kampung Bali in Central Jakarta talk with nostalgia about the times when everyone could meet, get a fix, get high, eat and doze off in a disused block hidden by a broken wall. Eventually, someone told the police and the meeting spot was raided. These days, no-one risks using the old hangout.

Poverty, necessity and the bond of sharing a criminal addiction have resulted in a tradition of patungan (shared) drug use. Patungan, often referred to simply as pt-pt, means pooling cash to buy a packet. Patungan partners then usually shoot up together. If cash contributions are equal, then doses are also equally measured and dispensed using a single needle.

Conflict is common and arguments may break out about dosage size and who paid what. One addict, who was wealthy enough to buy drugs alone, explained that he preferred to use by himself to avoid such conflict over who gets the bigger hit.

But some users who begin their addiction together sometimes maintain a close bond throughout their addicted life and beyond. One group of reformed addicts from East Jakarta were tested together, heard news of their positive results on the same day and regularly go to the HIV clinic together to receive treatment. When talking about their illness, which was likely to have been spread from one to the other, they were philosophical, ‘We can’t blame each other. We were all at fault.’

As yet there are no definitive studies of blood-borne disease infection among intravenous users. The Ministry of Health estimates the number of IDUs (intravenous drug users) to be between 124,000 and 169,000, with more than one-third HIV positive. Although figures fluctuate, statistics from rehabilitation centres that promote voluntary HIV testing indicate that about one in two users are HIV positive. A 2005 survey by YPI on HIV prevalence in Kampung Bali revealed 92 per cent infection. The same study put Hepatitis C at almost 100 per cent, leaving users with an unfortunate legacy even if they do manage to come clean.

Coming clean

The day I met Agus he had been clean for two weeks. Almost a decade of addiction had left him too tired to continue the constant struggle to find money and drugs. His family was poor, so there was no money for an expensive rehabilitation program in the hills of Bogor.

Drug rehabilitation is a burgeoning sector offering a wide range of approaches including military-style training (to teach self-discipline), the Narcotics Anonymous 12 steps program, cognitive behavioural therapy, chemically-assisted detoxification, spiritual guidance and combinations of any of the above. Providers are required to register with the Department of Health, but apart from that there are no quality control mechanisms and standards vary greatly. Very few programs are affordable to addicts from lower economic backgrounds or those who lack family support.

Kelima, a tiny outreach post in East Jakarta, is one of the few free rehabilitation services. With a few other long-term addicts, Agus locked himself in for ten days to dry out, accompanied by outreach workers who offered counselling and support in the dark hours of heroin withdrawal. A lack of funding for the basic program means participants must bring their own money to buy food. When I met him, Agus was beginning on the hardest stage of his recovery – reintegration.

Temptation is constant for users who are trying or have managed to come clean. On Mondays and Thursdays, the community health centre (puskesmas) in Kampung Bali, in conjunction with YPI, provides a free health service for addicts. As well as a general check-up, a detoxification program is available and HIV positive users can receive free anti-retroviral drugs. Ironically, it is not uncommon to see a dealer waiting in the shade outside as addicts queue to see the doctor.

The war on drugs has not succeeded in making heroin more expensive or harder to find. Instead, public outcry and law enforcement campaigns ensure users live on the periphery in lives of risk, code and crime.   

Jo Pickles (Joanna.Pickles@anu.edu.au) is a masters student at the Australian National University. She is joint guest editor of this edition.Tantyo Bangun (tbangun@indo.net.id) is a film maker based in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 85: Jan-Mar 2006

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