Nestled between the Indian and Pacific oceans is the largest island country on the planet – Indonesia. Home to more than 240 million people, the sun-drenched archipelago is rich in culture, brimming with nature and suffused with a culinary scene that rivals most. If there is one thing that the Southeast Asian country is missing, however, it’s weed.
The Indonesian government could be leaving some serious money on the table if it doesn’t follow in Thailand’s footsteps; medical cannabis was legalized in the Kingdom of Thailand on December 26, 2018. Predicted to pull in US$661 million by 2024, the industry is off to a pretty great start. So much so, that Thai cannabis advocates are now pushing for recreational legalization, too.
Cannabis developments are also happening elsewhere throughout Asia; Weed may be illegal in China, but Chinese CBD (cannabidiol) producers are supplying overseas buyers with the non-psychoactive substance, which could earn the continent US$15 billion by 2024; In September, the Indian government announced it will allow medical cannabis research for the first time; Although illegal in Singapore, industrial cannabis cultivation company CannAcubed is growing hemp there. Hemp is cannabis that contains 0.3% (or less) of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Taking the above into account, Indonesia is clearly missing out on the “Green Rush” that is spreading across much of Asia. However, in spite of strict prohibition, all hope is not lost for cannabis reform in Indonesia. A recent interview that I conducted with the founder and team members of a pro-cannabis movement known as ‘LGN’ leads me to believe that legal weed could be on the horizon… someday, at least.
What is the LGN cannabis movement in Indonesia?
Short for ‘Lingkar Ganja Nusantara’ – which translates to ‘Cannabis Circle Archipelago’ in English – LGN is a prominent group working towards cannabis reform in Indonesia. Comprised of approximately 55 members, @LGN_id has garnered over 271,000 Instagram followers since the group was founded in 2010.
Since its inception, the LGN team have collectively hosted and/or attended over 100 events. The well-known group is taking strides towards accomplishing the following missions throughout Indonesia:
- To be the center of research and education of Indonesian cannabis culture.
- To fight for the rights to cultivate, consume, and preserve cannabis for every Indonesian citizen, as well as build intellectual movement that is harmonious with natural principles.
- To develop a sustainable social enterprise ecosystem.
“We hope that our mission will lead us to reach our vision: to build a local cannabis industry ecosystem that is in line with Pancasila,” the founder of LGN, Dhira Narayana, told me. (Pictured below)
Pancasila is a national value and is the country’s constitution. It is based on five principles, which are as follows:
- Belief in the Almighty God – (in Indonesian “Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa”)
- A just and civilized humanity – (in Indonesian “Kemanusiaan yang Adil dan Beradab”),
- A unified Indonesia – (in Indonesian “Persatuan Indonesia”),
- Democracy led by the wisdom in a consensus or representatives (in Indonesian “Kerakyatan yang dipimpin oleh Hikmat Kebijaksanaan dalam permusyawaratan/perwakilan”)
- Social justice for all Indonesians (in Indonesian “Keadilan Sosial bagi seluruh Rakyat Indonesia”).
“We know that there are many ways to legalize cannabis, and we choose to use our own way – Indonesian way. We believe that our traditional/spiritual value will be the perfect foundation to our policy, as well as the foundation to educate our society,” Dhira added.
The courageous 32-year-old’s face has become well-known in Indonesia, where he frequently advocates for legalization and most recently – on November 5, 2019 – joined a panel to discuss Islamic views against the issue of cannabis legalization at Convention Hall Uin Kalijaga in Yogyakarta.
Barriers Preventing Cannabis Legalization in Indonesia
Cannabis and hashish in Indonesia are plonked alongside dangerous illicit drugs in Group 1, such as heroin, cocaine, mescaline, MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, amphetamine, methamphetamine, opium and opium derivatives.
To-date, consideration for cannabis legalization in Indonesia has only been political; not through scientific or even medical studies. This is according to the leader of LGN Makassar, Aksan (pictured below), who is known for his strict and straightforward characteristics as a Bugis tribe in blood.
“This is only a result of ratification of the law through a single narcotics convention through the United Nations, which Indonesia followed as a member after the decision was drafted,” Aksan says about pot prohibition in his country.
Cannabis does exist in Indonesia – albeit illegally – and is an endemic plant in the Aceh region. On that note, let’s dive into the main obstacles that make the prospect of legal weed in Indonesia seem impossible to many.
Conflicting Religious Views on Cannabis
While Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, the holiday-makers’ paradise island of Bali is primarily a Hindu island.
In Islam, cannabis, due to its intoxicating effects – which, of course, really depends on the strain – is deemed to be religiously forbidden, A.K.A. “Haram”.
“If much intoxicates, then even a little is haraam,” is a quote from Muhammad. Islam hadith (a term used to describe Islamic reports or references) states that “khamr” – any and all intoxicating substances – are capable of altering a person’s consciousness. Since cannabis can produce mind-altering effects, it is considered to be “khamr”.
Then again, although cannabis might be considered “haram” because it is “khamr”, the Quran does not explicitly ban the consumption of cannabis; hope prevails.
“There is a lot of perspective in Islam tradition. In term of its intoxicating effects, some say it is not haram, some say it is haram,” Dhira clarified to me, suggesting that more needs to be done to pinpoint exactly how religion may play a role in Indonesia’s prohibitionist approach to cannabis.
In Bali, the island is oozing with Hindu culture. Although the friendly locals are often seen lighting incense – called ‘dupa’ here – you won’t catch them lighting up a joint. Nonetheless, the Hindu Balinese people are believed to have previously embraced cannabis as a traditional medicine.
The island has a “culture of growing cannabis and using cannabis as a spice in cooking and for health,” says female LGN Bali secretary Zira (pictured below). Zira, is a socialist who describes herself as “meticulous and accurate about such things” – ‘things’ being cannabis.
“Hanacaraka Lontar is about the use of cannabis in traditional medicine and spirituality by Balinese culture,” explains Zira. In spite of this, she notes that the Hanacaraka Lontar “cannot be a sure source of information for legalizing cannabis in Indonesia.” Zira claims that the government restricts knowledge from history, which makes the Indonesian people of today narrow-minded in their view of cannabis.
Tobacco Yields Huge Profit For Indonesia
Something that is seriously getting in the way of legal weed in Indonesia is the thriving tobacco industry. Approximately 70% of adult Indonesian men smoke, based on data published by the World Health Organization (WHO). The LGN cannabis movement is being slowed down by tobacco giants, who sold 272 billion cigarettes throughout Indonesia during the first six months of 2018.
“In our opinion, this [pro-cannabis] movement is hampered by legal limitations that label cannabis as the highest article Narcotics, and because the largest company owned by Indonesia is a tobacco company that provides disease to its people,” said Zira.
Ludicrous advertising for tobacco is something I have witnessed first-hand in Bali. Billboards are plastered with tobacco ads glorifying the harmful, addictive substance, which contains over 7,000 chemicals; more than 60 are cancer-causing (carcinogenic).
“The income generated by tobacco companies can help the country’s foreign exchange. It has become attached to politics in this developing country that has a capitalist ideological system, but the government will always say that they are democratic,” Zira adds.
President Jokowi Imposes a Tough Approach to Drugs
In 2017, President Widodo – better known as “Jokowi” – instructed police officials to shoot suspected drug traffickers on sight. Jokowi was in power when ringleaders of the Bali 9 drug trafficking ring – Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – publicly faced the death penalty by firing squad in 2017. He became the country’s seventh president on October 20, 2014.
This has not deterred the members of LGN from trying to get Jokowi’s attention on the subject of cannabis legalization in Indonesia.
“Towards two periods of Jokowi’s leadership, specifically, the Chairperson of the Indonesian Cannabis Circle and through the Sativa Nusantara Foundation (a Cannabis planting research institution that houses LGN), has met with the Presidential Special Staff to begin a deeper discussion about cannabis in Indonesia. And then, in October 2014, LGN had pocketed a research permit approved by the Ministry of Health,” says Aksan.
Aksan goes on to say that LGN will continue pushing for legalization before President Jokowi’s second term ends. The president was under fire from the Indonesian people in September, when members of the general public protested against the culprits of raging forest fires that proliferated throughout parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra in August; the fires caused plumes of thick smoke to engulf the nearby Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia and Singapore.
One female Muslim protester held up a poster reading the words, ‘burn one joint [of cannabis], judged; burn a forest, protected,’ as she stood in front of the State Palace in Central Jakarta.
Long History Of Prohibition
Cannabis in Indonesia was banned way back in 1927, during the Dutch colonial period. In 1976, it was categorized as a Schedule 1 drug following the issuance of Law No. 9 of 1976; now Act No. 35 of 2009.
The law “says that cannabis can make sick people crazy or lose their minds, while according to world history of marijuana, it has nourished human civilization for 12,000 years,” says Zan, who deals with public relations for LGN Bali (pictured below). In one word, Zan defines himself as ‘plegmatis’ – meaning ‘peaceful, flowing like water’ in English. He says he is a positive member of the LGN team with an optimistic outlook.
“In our opinion, the government intentionally closes all knowledge and information about cannabis so that people can be handled easily, because if people think openly and freely then the government will feel defeated by their role of being state officials,” says Zan, adding that, “LGN movement only wants to be assisted by [compromises] in law to conduct research and prove that Cannabis is not dangerous for human survival and Cannabis plays an important role for medical purposes”.
Ways Indonesia Could Benefit from Cannabis Reform
In spite of prohibition, Indonesia is one of the biggest drug markets in Asia; in November 2017, the chief representative of the National Anti-Narcotics Agency, Sulistiandriatmoko, announced that there are almost six million people dabbling in illegal drugs across the archipelago.
Educating the Indonesian general public about the fact that cannabis legalization poses significant benefits – not just for the economy but also, for society as a whole – is something that is needed on a grand scale to flip the scales.
Here are some very likely benefits of legalizing cannabis in Indonesia:
- Dismantling of Illicit Market, Resulting in Money-Making Potential for the Economy
“First things first, it will reduce the level of the black market; if there are official regulations, confiscated cannabis will be taken to research centers to be investigated and used as a source of state income,” says Aksan of LGN Makassar. A recent report revealed that North America’s legal cannabis market will be worth $47.3 billion by 2024. The population of the North American continent is just over double that of Indonesia’s; comprising three major cannabis-consuming countries – United States, Mexico and Canada.
- People Could Get Access to Natural Medicine
Although more research into the cannabis plant’s therapeutic properties and efficacy in the medical world is required, the research that does exist has led to doctors in 33 out of 50 U.S. states prescribing medical cannabis to patients. With cannabinoids – the plant’s naturally-occurring cannabis compounds – being widely documented as chemicals that possess anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, analgesic, antiemetic, anticonvulsant and anti-obesity properties, the plant holds promise in the medical world.
“But we need science to legitimate our findings, then use it to advocate/influence government,” LGN founder Dhira wrote me, adding that, “we don’t want to use science from western world as a primary resource to change our policy because it will hurt our society, like they hurt us before (read Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961): full of stupidity.”
- Cut the Cost of Incarcerations
Law enforcement officials in Indonesia spend an unnecessary amount of time and money punishing cannabis offenders; something that could be avoided if the plant is legalized in some form. Locals and tourists alike find themselves banged up prison for simply being in possession of a small amount of weed. Many unknowing tourists are locked up in Bali’s notorious Kerobokan prison, such as British surfer Pip Holmes, 45, who faces the death penalty after being arrested in December 2018 with what he described as “a tiny amount of THC oil.”
- Create More Jobs and Reduce Unemployment Rates
Job growth is a direct effect of cannabis legalization, with Leafly’s 2019 Cannabis Jobs Count revealing that the legal weed industry employs over 211,000 full-time workers in the U.S. Examples of industry roles that could transpire in Indonesia if cannabis laws are loosened include cultivators, extractors, lab technicians, quality control inspectors, marketers and brand managers, to name a few.
- Take Advantage of Pristine Climate and Soil Fertility
Cultivating high-yielding cannabis plants relies on six crucial elements; sufficient water supply, correct temperature and humidity, healthy soil, adequate lighting, ample air supply, and additional nutrients, such as macronutrients and micronutrients. With year-round sunshine, sweltering temperatures and a flourishing natural landscape, Indonesia already harbors many of the essential elements down to a ‘T’.
“The government actually has a plant quarantine hall in Tawang Mangu Research and Development Center for Postage and Informatics Resources and Equipment, but the cannabis they cultivate is limited to displaying it and being monitored by iron bars,” Aksan explains. He also touched upon the Aceh region, where cannabis is an endemic plant. “At present, Aceh (the northernmost part of Sumatra) is the most suitable location for the climate and land contour for cannabis cultivation in Indonesia,” he says.
- Prevent People From Using Synthetic Weed
A prohibitionist approach to cannabis has resulted in synthetic alternatives floating around Indonesia. Indonesia’s National Narcotics Board (BNN) joined forces with the Health Ministry in January of 2017 to criminalize 25 synthetic cannabinoids – one of which is known as “Gorilla tobacco” – in an attempt to step-up their anti-narcotics efforts. Although a fair effort on behalf of the BNN and the Ministry, synthetic cannabinoids will continue to be produced, sold and consumed in Indonesia for as long as cannabis remains an illicit substance.
- Legalizing Cannabis in Indonesia Would Help to Educate the General Public
If people are told something by the government, they tend to believe it is true. This is certainly the case in regards to the Indonesian public’s perception of pot, as a result of it being tarnished with a terrible reputation by the government.
“To our society, we try to educate people that cannabis is part of our ecosystem,” says LGN founder Dhira. “Moreover, we find that cannabis plays an important role on our traditional cuisine, agriculture, or even cultural symbol (example: symbol of cannabis in Javanese traditional weapon: Keris). These finding brings new perspective to our society, new values, new story; that’s what our society needs. If its pure about science, just a small amount of our population will believe it.”
- Cannabis Legalization in Indonesia Could Attract Overseas Investor Interest
Cannabis industry investments are skyrocketing. In 2018, the number of cannabis investments funneled into the North American cannabis industry – which is one of the largest on the planet – totaled $10 billion. In the event that Indonesia does, someday, get on board with legalization, the country could certainly reap the financial rewards from investors.
Efforts Being Made to Raise Awareness about Cannabis in Indonesia
Education is essential to make the Indonesian population aware of the benefits of cannabis. The plant has a taboo reputation, but the problem lies in lack of awareness.
“In Indonesia, the landscape of our cannabis politics is complicated due to our policy and knowledge which is based on modern (materialism) mindset. If you read and dig deeply to our roots of independence, we are are driven by cultural and spiritual value (you can see in our constitution: Pancasila), not modern value,” says Dhira.
He believes that there is “a gap between modern and traditional mind,” claiming that “modern mind tends to separate everything, [while] traditional mind tries to unify everything.” Alongside his devoted team of cannabis lobbyists at LGN, Dhira hopes to strike a balance between those values.
Since LGN was initially launched almost a decade ago, the Indonesian pro-cannabis movement has found its place at various seminars; acting as the main speaking body, in many instances. The group continues to fight for legalization in almost all of the provincial capitals spread around the huge country.
“One proof is the participation of LGN to include cannabis roots as traditional medicinal herbs at the National Culture Week held on 7-13 October 2019 recently,” says Aksan. The Indonesian cannabis advocate also told me about a book that LGN has published, describing this as one of the group’s “most super” efforts to promote cannabis awareness in Indonesia.
“The book – ‘HIKAYAT POHON GANJA’ – was written to better inform the public about cannabis and act as an “entry ticket” for discussion with the government. ‘Hikayat’ is an Arabic word that literally translates to ‘stories’, ‘Pohon’ means ‘Tree’ and ‘ganja’ is self-explanatory – “Stories of Ganja Trees,” explains Aksan, LGN Makassar.
In addition to campaigning for the cannabis plant’s medical benefits at seminars and public speaking events, LGN raises awareness with its branded t-shirt propaganda.
An Expat’s Analysis
I have been living the expat lifestyle on the Indonesian island of Bali – acknowledged as a surfer’s paradise with a zero-tolerance drug policy – since 2016. Prior to my arrival in Bali, I spent a year backpacking around Thailand (easy to find the green stuff), Vietnam (not so easy, but possible), Laos (everything on the menu is ‘happy’ here) and Cambodia (buds so good I thought I was in Amsterdam for a moment.) Comparatively, I noticed a stark contrast between Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries; cannabis is widely offered to locals and tourists alike in the other countries I visited.
A more recent trip to Sri Lanka – where cannabis research was recently initiated – in October 2017 also opened my eyes to the simplicity of getting one’s hands on some weed there. Tuk-tuk drivers offered it to everybody (and not just weed, either.) The same cannot be said for Indonesia, where the plant is forbidden outright.
It is an unfortunate truth to behold, considering the fact that Indonesia boasts a climate so pristine for pot cultivation that it could potentially dominate in a world where cannabis acceptance is becoming the norm. On the plus side, upon asking LGN members, “Do you think there is a possibility that Indonesia will follow in Thailand’s footsteps?,” they told me that it is “very possible.”
“Look at the map of Southeast Asia, we can do a mapping of countries in Asia and see shifts in legalizing cannabis between countries. But now, the Indonesian government looks like a father who was asked a question by his 10-year-old son. The government seems not to know what answer they will give. Maybe they are still studying the arguments for the public about this cannabis plant, outside the systematic law,” says Aksan.
“When the country is independent, where cannabis is still legally used by people, this independence is generated because of a democratic ideological system; from the people for the people. [It stems from how our] leader used to fight for independence or freedom from the invaders. Always hear the voice of the people and get strength from the people,” secretary Zira explained.
The big question is, how can the Indonesian government not see this lucrative opportunity? And why don’t they initiate the research as a government in the name of public welfare? This could be accomplished by working in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, anti-narcotic agency, and LGN, says Zan.
In conclusion, cannabis consumption, cultivation, sale and possession remain illegal and incredibly dangerous in Indonesia. Taking the risk is not worth it and could cost risk-takers their lives. On the other hand, loosening cannabis laws in Indonesia could give the third world country’s economy an almighty boost. Additionally, patients could benefit from a plant that was praised in ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia (c. 100 AD).
With the benefits in mind, investors should be on standby. If Indonesia follows in Thailand’s footsteps, the opportunities stand to be huge.