Bali, an island steeped in Hindu culture, has been enticing surfers, beach lovers, and spiritual seekers for decades. Unfortunately for some tourists, the adventure ends in more than a suntan. Getting stuck behind bars at Kerobokan prison has become a common scenario for hordes of island visitors, many of whom are still awaiting their fate after being caught selling, possessing, or using cannabis.
Bali Tourists Face Harsh Penalties for Drug Use
Located four miles from the party-central oceanside village of Canggu, the overcrowded prison was initially built to hold 300 inmates. However, as of 2017, more than 1,400 male and female visitors were reportedly crammed inside. The National Narcotics Agency (BNN) has continuously warned tourists about the seriousness of drug abuse in Bali, but some foreigners seem to have missed the memo.
On April 17, 2005, nine young Australians were handcuffed and detained in Bali on drug trafficking charges. Nicknamed the “Bali 9,” some members faced the ultimate sacrifice—the death penalty—for attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin (valued at USD $2.8 million) out of the country. Others are still serving lengthy stints at Kerobokan.
When it comes to cannabis, the rules are no more lenient. A 25-year-old Brazilian national was arrested upon arriving at the Bali airport on June 28, 2022, after getting caught by authorities with 9.1 grams of marijuana in his possession. The student, who reportedly purchased the cannabis legally in Thailand, claimed that he was unaware of Indonesia’s drug possession laws.
“Based on his confession, he obtained these illicit goods by purchasing them in Thailand because he lived in Thailand before and they are for his consumption. The suspect did not know that in Indonesia, it is forbidden to bring in marijuana,” said Ngurah Rai Airport Police Drug Enforcement Unit Chief I Kadek Darmawan.
Identified by his initials ASG, the Brazilian could face 15 years in prison and be forced to pay IDR $10 billion (USD $667,022) for importing and possessing a Class I illegal narcotic. His story, among many others, reflects the pressing need for updated drug laws across Bali and the rest of Indonesia amid the rise of global cannabis reform.
Current Status of Indonesia’s Cannabis Laws
Indonesia takes a strict stance against drug trafficking. The predominantly Muslim country shares a zero-tolerance policy with many other Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia imposes strict laws against the consumption and distribution of controlled substances, including marijuana, heroin, and crystal meth (known in Indonesia as “shabu”).
Under Indonesian law, cannabis plants, all plants of the Cannabis genus, and all parts of plants—including fruit, seeds, straw, and processed cannabis plants or components of cannabis plants including hash and resin—are categorized as narcotics. Medical and recreational cannabis derivatives—including CBD, edibles, hashish, hemp, CBD, and THC—are also illegal.
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Nonetheless, cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in Indonesia. According to head of the BNN, Komjen Pol Heru Winarko, approximately 63% of the 3.6 million drug users in Indonesia are cannabis users. Cannabis use dates back to the 10th century in Java and Aceh. The drug was banned by the Dutch colonial government in 1927, and it remained illegal after Indonesian independence, with it being the focal point of a major anti-drug and anti-narcotics campaign since the 1970s.
Another tourist who recently fell victim to the country’s harsh cannabis laws was 45-year-old Australian male tourist Terence Michael Chan. The tourist was found with a small amount of unhulled organic wild hemp seeds (1.5g) and a small bottle of hemp extract (infusion, 25ml) upon entering Ngurah Rai Airport. Although the products were purchased legally in Australia, where they are commercially sold as health foods and natural medicine, Terence has been ordered to pay AUD$250,000 (USD$178,000) in admittance of guilt.
Although CBD oil and hemp seed oil come from the hemp plant, these two substances are very different. Hemp oil or hemp seed oil is crammed with vitamins, nutrients, and protein but does not contain any cannabinoids, such as CBD or THC. It has been used since 6000 BCE for its natural healing properties. CBD oil, on the other hand, is produced from the leaves, stalks, and flowers of both cannabis and hemp plants to contain the highest possible levels of CBD.
The Importance of a Legal and Regulated Cannabis Market in Indonesia
While it might be years until Indonesia implements any policy change in cannabis, medical cannabis, and other drug use, the prospect of a legal market harbors much appeal. Not only could legal avenues stamp out illicit drug trading across the island (and Indonesia as a whole), but legalization could also grant patients with increased access to plant-based medicines.
In July of last year, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review of the country’s narcotics law that could have legalized medical cannabis across Indonesia. The following month, a group of Indonesian mothers pleaded with the government to legalize cannabis, which they claimed eases pain for their children with conditions like cerebral palsy.
Increased tax revenues, job growth, and investment opportunities are some more powerful incentives to push for cannabis legalization in Indonesia. Last year, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin urged the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) to permit the plant’s use for medical purposes.
Unfortunately, BNN chief Petrus Reinhard Golose recently expressed his lack of support for medical marijuana legalization, but the fight is not over just yet. Pro-cannabis groups like Lingkar Ganja Nusantara (LGN) are actively lobbying for legal cannabis across the Indonesian archipelago, which spans more than 2 million square kilometers.
“Give us the access to do research,” Narayana says. “Back then [when the movement first began in 2009], we crossed the line by wanting cannabis to be legal right away. Now we realize, before we legalize it, we have to do research first so that we have the knowledge.”
The fight continues.