It was two o’clock in the morning and Marjo*, his wife and their 4-year-old son were fast asleep at home when someone started banging on the front door. Marjo knew without even getting out of bed that it would be one of his “patients”—the term he uses for clients who come to his house to buy drugs.
Marjo is 37 years old and has worked as a chicken seller in Simpang Limun Market in Medan, North Sumatra, for three years—or at least that’s what most of his neighbours think he does for a living.
The money he gets from selling chickens doesn’t all go into his own pocket—he has to share some of the proceeds with the wholesaler who provides him the birds in the first place—so he’s started supplementing his income by dealing drugs. He’s been selling illicit substances, mainly cannabis and crystal meth, out of his home for almost a year.
“Who aspires to be a drug dealer?” asks Marjo, looking weary, “But if I just rely on my wages from selling chickens then how can I provide for my family?”
Indonesia’s drug problem
Indonesia is a country with a well-known drug problem. Speaking to the media in 2017, Sulistiandriatmoko, the chief representative of the National Anti-Narcotics Agency who only goes by one name, said that there were around six million drug users in Indonesia.
The island of Sumatra—and North Sumatra in particular—is famous in Indonesia for its drug culture. According to a 2016 report by the Transnational Institute, North Sumatra, and particularly Aceh, has a long history of cannabis use, which only started to be restricted under the Dutch in the 1920s. Despite state efforts to outlaw it, cannabis is now “the most widely used illicit substance in Indonesia, with approximately two million users in 2014.” Other drugs of choice across the archipelago include crystal meth, ecstasy and heroin.
A lack of opportunities
It wasn’t supposed to work out this way for Marjo. He studied law at a private university in Medan and dreamt of being a lawyer, but his parents lost the ability to pay for his education. He tried to hold on as long as he could and finish his studies, working part-time in order to pay his university fees.
When asked what his side job was, he just smiles. Then he explains that he sold marijuana on campus—many of the “patients” he has now were students who bought his drugs back in the day. According to Marjo, selling drugs on campus was much safer than selling them outside.
“When I was at university, selling drugs was easy—I never had to worry about getting caught by the police because there was an unwritten rule that said that they weren’t allowed on campus. If they tried to come onto the campus grounds and arrest anybody then the students would hurl rocks and chairs at them,” Marjo says, laughing at the memory. But it ultimately still wasn’t enough to put him through school.
Marjo’s wife, Warni*, knows about his “side job”. She was against the idea in the early days, when he started selling drugs, and the two argued often. She’s since come round and learnt to accept her husband’s choice, especially when their financial worries mounted and they needed to provide for their child.
Early in their marriage, Warni sold sold traditional Indonesian breakfast dishes like lontong and nasih gurih, and they didn’t have any serious financial issues. They still lived in Marjo’s parents’ home—thus saving on rent—and Marjo’s mother took care of their son when Warni went to work. But things took a turn for the worst, for reasons that Marjo refuses to explain, and the small family moved out.
Having lost both free accommodation and childcare, the family’s options became more limited. It didn’t help that things were tense with Warni’s side of the family as well; her parents had not approved of their daughter’s choice of husband.
Small fry drug dealers
In Indonesia, low-level drug dealers like Marjo are known as kelas teri—which translated to something like “small fry”—as they only sell marijuana and crystal meth in small quantities. He refers to them as “budget packages”.
The money that Marjo gets from selling drugs is relatively modest; there are times, depending on the higher-level dealers that he has to buy from, when he doesn’t make a profit at all.
“If it’s marijuana then I buy five ounces at a time at about IDR150,000 (USD10.65) per ounce. An ounce is enough for fifteen packets and I sell one packet for IDR20,000 (USD1.42) which can be made into two or three joints depending on the user,” he explains.
“If it’s ‘white’ [crystal meth] then I take one sack [five grams] from another dealer. The dealer sells it to me for IDR800,000 per gram (USD58),” he continues. “I mostly sell it in small packets that cost IDR150,000 (USD10.56) and quarter gram packages for IDR250,000 (USD17.50).” From five grams of crystal meth he’s able to earn up to IDR500,000 (USD35) gross profit.
Marjo says that some people know about his side profession, but they don’t give him any trouble or report him to the police. On one occasion two women came to his house to find out if it was really true that Marjo dealt drugs. He told them the truth.
“When my wife started to pour out her heart, she began to cry, and the women also cried when they heard our story, so they tried to help us by keeping quiet”
When asked why they didn’t report him to the police, Marjo gives a surprising answer: “My wife and I confided in them about the struggles we’ve experienced in our family. When my wife started to pour out her heart, she began to cry, and the women also cried when they heard our story, so they tried to help us by keeping quiet.”
This silence, however, came with certain conditions: “I promised I wouldn’t sell drugs to anyone in the area or who was still at school.”
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Indonesia’s drug problem has changed over the years: “While cannabis continues to be the most prevalently used drug, the use of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) is growing rapidly. There has been a five-fold increase in undefined ATS production facilities busted over the last four years and a three-fold increase in methamphetamine related arrests in 2009 compared to 2006”.
While only a few years ago crystal meth was mostly imported from Europe, or from other countries within Asia, the rising demand has meant that “the domestic manufacture of ATS has increased to meet the growing demand for crystalline methamphetamine and ecstasy (MDMA)”.
With the rise of locally produced crystal meth, and cannabis grown across North Sumatra, small fry drug dealers like Marjo have sprung up to fulfil demand. For many people struggling to make ends meet—such as those with low education levels, childcare issues and limited capital—selling drugs looks like a lucrative and easy option. As Marjo’s experience shows, such low-level dealing also comes with relatively little risk as local communities are willing to cover for them. It may sound strange, but an empathetic society has allowed small fry drug dealers to flourish across the archipelago.
A culture of empathy
Irna Minauli, a psychologist from Medan, explains the social and psychological aspect of small fry drug dealers within local communities: “Indonesia, and especially North Sumatra, is a place that has a strong sense of collectivity. This collective culture also makes for deeper feelings of solidarity. The desire to help each other is part of daily life here. This means that people are more empathetic about what happens to other members of society.”
Despite his illegal side hustle, Marjo says he’s known in his area for being friendly, and enjoys participating in communal activities and events near his home. “Warni also often helps cook the food for ceremonies or parties with the other women in the neighbourhood,” he says proudly.
So strong is the support for local small fry drug dealers that when conducting drug eradication programmes and arrests, the police often keep the operations under wraps
There are other examples of local populations protecting the small fry drug dealers in their midst. On the 1 May 2018, a police officer in Ogan Komering Hulu Timur in South Sumatra was conducting an operation to catch a drug dealer known for dealing crystal meth. When he tried to make the arrest, the dealer started screaming and pleading for help from his family and neighbours. They sprang to his aid.
“The neighbours tried to detain the officer by putting plastic barrels and trees along the road and throwing rocks at his car,” Erlin Tangjaya, head of police of Ogan Komering Hulu Timur, Erlin Tangjaya, told(link in Bahasa Indonesia) local media.
So strong is the support for local small fry drug dealers—who are perceived as individuals doing all they can to get by rather than as criminals—that when conducting drug eradication programmes and arrests, the police often keep the operations under wraps so that even members of the teams involved don’t know where and who the target is.
“If we announce it, the criminals will be able to escape ahead of the operation, and we also map out the target area and know all the entrances and exits that the targets may use to try and hide,” said the director of the police narcotics division in Jakarta, Kombes Eko Daniyanto, in a statement(link in Bahasa Indonesia) to the media in 2016.
“Maybe in the future I will quit”
When asked what he makes on average from selling drugs in a single month, Marjo chuckles, stands up and walks to the cupboard in his living room. “This is the profit,” he says, showing off five mobile phones. “It’s been three weeks and the owners still haven’t come back to collect them; it’s like I’m a pawnshop to some people. Someone told me that he would leave the phone as a guarantee and come back and pay me for his drugs in two days at the most, but he wasn’t being real. Two of these phones left by customers don’t even work.”
Marjo says some customers give him their phones as a guarantee when they want to buy crystal meth on credit. He doesn’t have any strong feelings about the drug abusers who come to him and doesn’t think about how he is helping feed their addictions. It’s just a way to make money. He says he has to be “clever” when dealing with “patients” as not all of them are the desirable clients. “Sometimes, if people want to get credit by leaving me their phone, yeah… I have to be clever about it, some I give credit to and others I don’t. If all of them didn’t pay me upfront then how would I survive?”
Selling chickens, cannabis and crystal meth was not the plan Marjo had for his life. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll continue to be a small fry drug dealer. It all depends on his reason for selling drugs in the first place: his family.
“Maybe in the future I will quit selling drugs,” he says. “But when my son has stopped drinking milk and doesn’t need to wear nappies anymore”.
* Names have been changed at interviewees’ request.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please subscribe to New Naratif—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!
Teguh Harahap is a freelance writer and translator based in Medan, Indonesia. Previously he worked as the editor of Koran Kindo, a weekly newspaper for Indonesian migrant workers based in Hong Kong.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Consulting Editor for North Sumatra. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at email@example.com.