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10 Questions

10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask Indonesian Cops Who Burn Illegal Drugs

In Indonesia, burning large amounts of drugs in public is a way for the police to show their accountability to the people. It's also how they have gotten residents high by accident.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
03 March 2018, 8:30am

Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

About a dozen police officers stood around wearing a face mask. They were there to destroy evidence, and asked the civilians who were watching to step back. Slowly, flames engulfed the pile of 3.3 tonnes of marijuana wrapped in plastic and paper. It was a proud moment for the police officers—the public drug burning in 2015 was its biggest one to date. Then the situation got a little out of hand. Soon, smoke filled the Palmerah football field and made some people high.

In Indonesia, this is normal. The police often destroy confiscated drugs—from marijuana to crystal meth—and make a whole spectacle out of it. The ritual is done at various public facilities, like the backyard of the police headquarters or empty fields in local neighborhoods.

The practice of destroying drug evidence, especially marijuana, is a controversial topic here. Some people protest the practice, while others see it as a blessing. VICE Indonesia reached out to Suhermanto, chief of the narcotics division of the West Jakarta police, for more perspective. From 2008 to 2014, West Jakarta was known as the "drug heaven" in the Greater Jakarta Area. It was where you could find many of the city's illegal drug distributors and manufacturers.

Besides hunting down drug dealers, destroying confiscated drugs—like marijuana, crystal meth and heroin—is part of his job. Here's how our conversation with him went down:

VICE Indonesia: Hello, there. Do we have a standardized procedure for destroying narcotics and liquors?
Suhermanto: There’s a standard for sure. After they get destroyed, the narcotics shouldn’t be viable for consumption. It’s possible that if we don’t destroy it according to the official procedures, the drugs can be re-processed. The practice shouldn’t endanger the surrounding residences. [Our method] doesn’t create air, water, or soil pollution.

So you break up meth and burn marijuana out in a field. Isn't it better to use an incinerator, if you're going to burn the drugs?
It's just how we do it. There are other devices prepared by the National Narcotics Agency to destroy the drugs, but we can’t them if the substances come in small quantity. And sometimes the devices are used somewhere else. There are many other police offices in Jakarta that exterminate drugs. We also still have an incinerator. If there's a lot to burn, then we'll use the incinerator. This is a standardized practice determined by the government, after several tests that this method reduces pollution.

Why destroy the evidence in public?
It’s our accountability to the public, according to the laws. We need to destroy those things as people watch—residents, a representative of the court, and the media. We don’t want people to think that police officers re-sell the drugs they confiscated. This is our way to show our accountability to the law and the people.

Why does marijuana have to be burned? Have you thought of another way to deal with it?Never. If you bury it, someone may unearth it, and it may also pollute the soil. If you throw it to the sea, it might kill fish and damage corals. Thats why, I think, burning it is the best way to go.

What about crystal meth? Why break it up?
After we break up meth, we plant them. We create a puddle on the soil and dump them there. We blend the meth with acid and caustic soda so it won’t be consumable again.

What can the public do to make sure that the quantity of the drugs being destroyed is exactly the same as the one being confiscated earlier?
Before destroying them, the evidence drugs are checked by the National Polices Central Forensic Laboratory. We weigh them, check the content, re-check it, then we destroy it.

What’s the possibility of a police officer stealing some of those confiscated drugs?
There’s always that possibility. But we have to be sharper on closing these cracks. That’s why we follow the standardized procedures when keep the evidence. We don’t want to lose it before we destroy. We usually store the evidence in a safety deposit box, and the lock is held by a few officers. So all three officers have to be present for the deposit to be opened. When destroying the evidence, we have to invite the public, law enforcers, public figures, religious leaders to watch and the forensic laboratory to check the quantity.

The practice of destroying evidence drugs always attract pretty big crowds. Many have complained about feeling dizzy afterwards. How do you feel about this?
Perhaps it’s the aftereffect. Since we burn it, many people who watch inhale the fume. But it’s not that significant.

Do the police officers get affected by the fume as well? What’s your personal experience like?Not really. During the burning we always wear a face mask.

Is it like a special mask?
It’s just a regular mask. The fume might go through the mask, but at least it gets filtered. We don’t really inhale that much. We need to reassess this so it doesn’t happen again. Some people complained about the burning in Palmerah, so we don’t want to repeat that.

Have you seen people coming into the burning just to specifically enjoy the fume?
Not really. I mean it’s possible, but we never know people’s intention. We can’t just say, "Hey, don’t come here if you just want to get high." But we always announce not to get too close to avoid the effect of the fume.

When the police burn marijuana and people inhale the smoke, would they categorically fall into “user”?
We’ve never tested them before, but they would probably be positive for marijuana.

Theoretically, are they breaking the law from getting high during the burning?
No. It’s just the effect of the burning. When we check someone’s urine, we also interrogate that person why they’re tested positive. So the interrogation will do the trick.