Commentary: Jokowi Uses False Stats to Justify Executions
We have all heard President Joko Widodo’s mantra over the last two months: Indonesia is now home to at least 4.5 million drug users, and every day 40 to 50 of those drug users will die a tragic death.
In an attempt to justify his policy of executing drug traffickers, Jokowi has repeatedly referenced the above figures, arguing that capital punishment is the only commensurate response to Indonesia’s worsening “drug crisis.”
Other politicians and media outlets, likewise, have been happy to regurgitate this same set of figures — without any reference to a source or method — thus lending their support to the president’s campaign of violence to combat drug trafficking.
So where, exactly, did President Jokowi find such astonishing statistics? How can we be sure that the numbers are accurate? And what shall we do if the figures turn out to be cooked?
During the past two weeks, a team of drug policy researchers based in Jakarta has been investigating these pertinent questions, and what they have discovered is that Jokowi’s so-called “statistics” are merely a set of wildly inaccurate speculations, built around a hopelessly flawed methodology.
The original source of the figures is a 2008 study conducted by the Center for Health Research at the University of Indonesia, in collaboration with the National Narcotics Agency (BNN).
Such is the tremendous depth of error and inaccuracy in the 2008 report, it is difficult to know where to begin a dismantling of its claims.
Claudia Stoicescu, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and a visiting researcher in Jakarta, was among the first to study the report in detail. In an op-ed for the Conversation published in the Jakarta Globe, Stoicescu said that “the methods and definitions used in the 2008 study clearly do not conform to international best practice standards,” adding that the most of the report’s calculations were based on “questionable and vague measures.”
The first of the report’s erroneous findings is the alleged total of 4.5 million drug users.
According to President Jokowi, all of Indonesia’s 4.5 million drug users are in urgent need of “rehabilitation,” and perhaps 18,000 of those drug users will die without treatment during 2015. A look at the original source of these figures, however, reveals that 4.5 million is clearly not a valid estimate of Indonesia’s total drug-using population, nor does it shed any light on the number of Indonesians in need of drug treatment.
The 4.5 million figure is an elaborate projection based on a strange conflation of four earlier surveys produced by the BNN and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), all of which are now almost a decade old.
In 2003 and 2006, the BNN conducted a survey of school pupils and university students, hoping to find out what percentage of Indonesia’s youth had taken drugs within the last 12 months. The 2003 survey showed that 3.9 percent of students had taken drugs, whereas the 2006 study showed that 5.3 percent of students had taken drugs. This increase of 1.4 percentage points over three years thus averages out at a 0.47 percentage points per year. Therefore, according to the BNN’s 2008 report, we can safely assume that the total number of Indonesian students who use drugs will continue to increase by 0.47 percentage points every year henceforth.
The second groups of drug users calculated in the BNN’s 2008 study is, of course, Indonesian adults and working people. To estimate the size of this particular group, the 2008 study simply takes some vague and outdated estimates of global drug use from the UNODC, and attempts to apply this vast set of contingent data onto Indonesia’s complex, local context. The results of this statistical conjuring, needless to say, could hardly be any less scientific.
Once a year, the UNODC publishes its World Drug Report, in which it attempts to estimate the total size of the world’s drug-using population. For this purpose, the UNODC produces two sets of Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQs) — one for drug supply, and one for drug consumption, which are then dispatched to all United Nations member states.
Without fail, every year, a large minority of states will fail to answer the ARQs, and will not return any data to UNODC. In some cases, a state may complete and return the questionnaire on “Drug Abuse,” but fail to complete the questionnaire on “Illicit Supply of Drugs,” (or vice versa). In other cases, a state may attempt to complete both questionnaires, but will have to leave many sections blank due to the unavailability of data. This is particularly true of developing nations in Africa and Asia, where data on drug use and drug supply is scare and not systemically recorded.
In the methodology section of each World Drug Report, therefore, the UNODC routinely emphasizes the “significant data limitations” contained in the report, and stresses that its figures on global drug use remain incomplete, uneven, and vastly speculative. In Indonesia, however, these limitations seem to have been ignored.
In 2006, the UNODC’s World Drug Report estimated that there were 200 million drug users worldwide. In 2007, however, the same report calculated 208 million drug users worldwide. Therefore, according to the BNN’s 2008 study, we can safely assume that Indonesia’s total number of adult drug users will continue to increase by 0.04 percentage points every year henceforth.
The authors of the 2008 study neglect to explain why they believe that this is a valid methodology for projecting the increase of a single, national drug market such as Indonesia’s. Clearly one cannot arrive at a reliable estimate of Indonesia’s total drug-using population based on similarly unreliable estimates gathered from other countries. But for some strange reason, the authors of the 2008 study seem to think that drug data gathered in Mexico, Afghanistan, Colombia and Nigeria — to name just some examples — has some important relevance to the situation in Indonesia. This is pure nonsense, of course, and the authors should know better.
In the 2008 study, these two percentage points — 0.47 for students and 0.04 for adults — are then multiplied by the projected increase of Indonesia’s total population between the ages of 10 and 59 (i.e. those considered to be “at risk” of drug abuse). These two formulas, if calculated for every year between 2008 and 2013, eventually indicate that Indonesia’s total drug-using population will grow from 3.6 million to 4.5 million during that five-year period.
Thus, it is on this totally arbitrary and hugely speculative basis that President Jokowi now believes, with conviction, that there are 4.5 million drug users in Indonesia at present.
In a recent interview with APP News, Ferdinand P. Siagian, from the University of Indonesia’s Center for Health Research, admitted that the 2008 study “might not represent the whole of Indonesia 100 percent.” He added, however, that the results of the study are still instructive nonetheless: “At least with the methodology we used,” he is quoted as saying, “it gives [us] a general description of what’s going on.”
Given that six people have already been executed on the basis of the above figures, and at least 60 more are soon to face the firing squad, Siagian appears to have very little respect for the sanctity of human life. To say that the 4.5 million figure gives us “a general description” of Indonesia’s drug problem is not just bad statistics — it is a false warrant for capital punishment and mass murder.
Dozens of people will die because of your bad evidence, Siagian; why does that not seem to bother you?
To be, or not to be a ‘drug addict’?
Moving swiftly on to President Jokowi’s next most extraordinary claim: that each of Indonesia’s 4.5 million drug users is need of some form of “rehabilitation,” and may well die if the BNN fails to provide the required treatment. Once again, this figure is sourced from the BNN’s 2008 study, and once again — not surprisingly — the methodology used to arrive at the “statistics” is based on some elaborate nonsense.
The BNN’s 2008 study presents a survey of 2,143 drug users, across 17 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces. Each interviewee is asked to disclose which illegal drug(s) he or she has used in the last 12 months, and is then asked to describe the frequency of his or her drug use during the same period. Based on the answers given, each respondent is then filtered into one of four categories of drug user: “experimental user,” “regular user,” “non-injecting drug addict,” or “injecting drug addict.”
Respondents who claimed to have taken drugs just four times or less within the past year are classified as “experimental users,” whilst those who recall taking drugs more than four times but fewer than 49 times in the past year are classified as “regular users.” Meanwhile, those who claim to have taken drugs more than 49 times in the past 12 months are automatically classified as “addicts.”
Here, then, the methodology reveals its first weakness, as it fails to give a definition for a single act of “drug use.” This point cannot be overstated, for in the absence of this one crucial definition, the entire study is rendered completely ambiguous.
Consider some examples: if a person takes drugs continuously for an entire weekend, does that count as two acts of “drug use” — a Friday and a Saturday night, for instance — or just a single, marathon indulgence? Similarly, if a person takes several ecstasy pills at a nightclub, and then decides to smoke meth later that evening, does that count as one, two or several acts of “drug use”? None of these criteria are made clear in the survey, and the results are, not surprisingly, further compromised by the fact that each respondent has to scour their long-term memory simply to provide an answer to each question.
But the most shocking of all the report’s methodologies, by a clear margin, is the criteria used for categorizing the “drug addict.” As mentioned above, each respondent who claimed to have taken drugs more than 49 times in the past 12 months is automatically classified as a “drug addict.” Meanwhile, each respondent who admitted to injecting an illegal drug, even just once in their entire life, is automatically classified as an “injecting drug addict.”
From the point of view of medical science, this is where the 2008 report careens most haphazardly away from the realm of common sense and best practice: in its categorizing of drug users as “addicts” solely on the basis of their frequency of use.
For medical practitioners, international best practice dictates that one or more validated measures of drug dependence — such as the World Health Organization’s Addiction Severity Index — should be applied to each individual drug user before reaching a diagnosis of addiction. Such diagnostic methods consider a wide range of the drug user’s biological, behavioral and psychological characteristics, thus giving a clearer picture of whether or not they are dependent on drugs, and therefore in need of treatment.
In clear contrast to international best practice, the BNN’s 2008 study merely considers frequency of use to be the one and only factor in determining whether a drug user is suffering an addiction. Thus, using the BNN’s rationale, myself and most of my friends, (and probably many of my readers), would have to classify as raging alcoholics, since we like to drink beer at least two times a week, which amounts to 104 sessions per year. If this really was a valid way to diagnose alcoholism, then we would be living in a world populated by literally billions of alcoholics at present.
With such nonsensical criteria in place, it is little wonder that the BNN’s 2008 study found that the majority of its sample group — some 40 percent of respondents! — classified as “non-injecting drug addicts,” while only 27 percent of respondents were able to clinch the more respectable category of “regular user.” For reasons explained above, we already know that this is a totally false representation of Indonesia’s drug problem, and President Jokowi ought to realize this before summoning the next firing squad.
Abysmally inaccurate and speculative data, such as those compiled by the BNN and UI, are now being used to justify the mass murder of Indonesia’s convicted drug traffickers. This should be deeply disturbing to anyone who respects the idea of an evidence-based policy, since the decision to execute a convict, if based on bad evidence, is one of very few policy decisions that cannot be reversed.
As soon as the executioner’s bullet pierces the vital organs of the next blindfolded victim, nothing can be done to turn back to the clock. No amount of protestation or debunking of the president’s “figures” can bring back those who were wrongly executed, and the grieving relatives of every slain trafficker will have to suffer this appalling fact every day for the rest of their lives.
President Jokowi, why would you want this on your conscience? Why would you take the risk?
As the weeping sister of the late Rani Andriani said to TVOne shortly before last month’s executions: “Why do you do you have to kill my sister, Bapak Jokowi? Why?”
Patrick Tibke is a Jakarta-based writer and a recent graduate of the Southeast Asian Studies program at SOAS, University of London. His interests include human rights, labor rights and drug policy. This is the first article in a two-part series.
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Source: The Jakarta Globe