Jakarta. People addicted to crystal methamphetamine — known as sabu-sabu in Indonesia — face a tough battle for recovery, made even more difficult by the spreading prevalence of the drug, rehabilitation shortcomings and societal attitudes, say rehabilitation experts and recovering addicts.
Sabu-sabu can be used in various ways, but in Indonesia it is usually smoked. It makes users feel euphoric, alert and energetic for anywhere from four to 12 hours, and has been known to allow people to stay awake for a whole week without any sleep. But the range of physical and mental health risks it also brings, including weight loss, poor oral hygiene, nerve damage and psychosis, is serious.
“First my teeth began to fall apart,” said Boyke, 37. “After that I got paranoid. Sabu-sabu changed my way of thinking, I saw other people as my enemies and I became very anxious.”
The recovering addict has been using the drug intermittently since he was 18 years old and has been jailed because of it.
The implications were just as far-reaching for Rico, 33, from Medan in North Sumatra. “I lost everything, my family, my friends,” he said. “It got to a point where I only felt comfortable alone because I thought my family and friends weren’t interested in me.”
David Gordon, director of the Yakita Foundation, a network of Indonesian nongovernmental drug rehabilitation centers that has helped thousands of addicts, has been working in drug recovery since the late 1990s and says sabu-sabu is more destructive than heroin.
“You take someone who has been on heroin for 20 years, clean them up and they’ll be fine,” he told IRIN. “But you take someone who has been smoking sabu-sabu for three years and their central nervous system will be shot, and when that goes, it’s gone forever.”
A 2011 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said sabu-sabu surpassed marijuana as the primary drug of choice in Indonesia in 2010, and use was still rising.
The Indonesian National Narcotics Agency (BNN) said sabu-sabu users increased from 5,294 people in 2008 to 7,596 in 2011. But drug rehabilitation experts point out that with a population of more than 240 million, the figure could be much higher.
“Sabu-sabu use is now widespread across the country,” said Gordon. “You used to have to know someone [to get it] but now you can go to any nightclub to connect [with a seller].”
Gordon alleges that part of the addiction problem is that law enforcers have become part of the sabu-sabu supply chain instead of protecting people by cutting it off.
“All the stories you hear about the authorities burning seized sabu-sabu — well they don’t,” Gordon said. “They just put powder in it [dilute the drug or ‘cut’ it] and send it back out into the community, which fuels usage.”
Local media have reported that sabu-sabu use in prisons is also widespread. Recovering addict Boyke said this greatly hinders rehabilitation. “Walk out of your cell and you can get sabu-sabu off the inmates. They even make it inside the prison, and wardens take their cut of the profits from the inmates,” he claimed.
Although a 2009 narcotics law classified drug users as “victims” rather than “criminals,” prevailing attitudes prevent addicts from seeking help. “The government doesn’t understand the needs of drug users, so people won’t access government centers even if they need help,” said Boyke.
Gordon said the idea of malu (shame or embarrassment) at the community level was why sabu-sabu abusers did not seek help.
“Malu is not just about feeling guilt and shame, it’s about living it,” he said. “Sabu-sabu use is difficult for people to talk about because of the fear of placing that shame on their families. Some families don’t visit addicts because of that shame.”
The BNN noted that there were 555 state and private facilities where users of sabu-sabu could access rehabilitation, and although National data was unavailable, only 456 people were treated at the BNN’s only specialized drug rehabilitation center in 2011.
The government has plans to open more specialized rehabilitation centers across the country, but ongoing assistance is a big problem.
“Even if people get off sabu-sabu, there’s nothing in terms of aftercare, or in terms of community-based support, so the relapse rate is high,” Gordon said.
“The country can’t keep up with usage,” he noted. “People are doing tons of the stuff. The problem is much bigger than us [Yakita] and is growing much faster than we are.”