Holistic approach needed if Malaysia is serious about decriminalising drug use

It has been three years since Malaysia first announced its plan to decriminalise drug use in small quantities.

This effort appears to have gone up in smoke following the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government in 2020.

The policy is not meant to legalise personal drug use, but rather, to decriminalise it for those who are addicted to drugs and are in need of help.

Malaysia recently announced the abolition of the mandatory death penalty. Currently, there are more than 1,300 people on death row, with most cases involving drug trafficking.

Under Malaysia’s Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, those found in posession of 15g or more of of heroin, 15g or more of morphine, 40g or cocaine, 50g of methampetemine, and 200g or more in weight of cannabis face being charged with drug trafficking, which carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Datuk Dr P. Sundramoorthy, an honorary associate professor (criminology) at the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, said decriminalising drug use will only succeed only if there are proper facilities in place, including support clinics for drug addicts.

“If we want to decriminalise personal drug use in small quantities, we must ask ourselves, who then, will be selling these drugs. Are we ready to provide the support facilities? (Drug) dependents cannot be buying drugs off the streets,” Sundramoorthy said.

“It has to be done methodically. Not in a way that will lead to drug syndicates jumping for joy over the new policy.

“Dependents must only be allowed drugs in small quantities… for individual use only, that can last for a day or two. It should not be for long-term use. One cannot be allowed to keep a few hundred grammes of drugs that last for 10 days, or a month,” he added.

Sundramoorthy said setting up methadone or heroin clinics, among others – where drug users can get access to their required shots – was crucial in the successful implementation of such a policy, if introduced. A different approach would be applied for those who are addicted to marijuana, he added.

“We should follow the models that have been adopted in countries like Portugal and England, where they have successfully reduced drug use through decriminalisation.”

Dubbed the “heroin capital of Europe”, Lisbon battled an opioid epidemic in the 1990s. In 2001, Portugal turned the crisis around by introducing laws to decriminalise the use and possession of up to 10 days’ worth of narcotics or other drugs for personal use.

Users arrested by police will appear before a three-member commission who have the expertise in the subject of drug addiction. The panel will assess if a person is addicted and would suggest the required treatment.

A 2018 report noted that Portugal’s model had brought down the number of heroin users in the country, from 100,000, to 25,000.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the number of drug addicts arrested by the National Anti-Drug Agency in 2020 dropped by 20.8 per cent to 20,643 people, compared to 26,080 in 2019. The majority of drug addicts were male (2020: 95.3 per cent, 2019: 95.7 per cent).

Sundramoorthy said when dependents have access to drugs in a controlled environment, the chances of them accessing drugs with adulterated dosage will be low.

“Another purpose of these facilities or clinics would be to facilitate rehabilitation, if they wish to … there should be no compulsion.

“At the same time, emphasis must be placed on educating the young on the dangers of drug abuse. Decriminalising drug use alone is not the solution.

“Things must be put in place in a proper and systematic manner to ensure that the number of drug dependents will be reduced.”

He said decriminalising a small quantity of drug use was not about reducing the number of people in jail or preventing repeat offenders from being brought to court.

“Ultimately, it boils down to fully addressing drug-related problems in the country. And it is about having proper funding, and trained professionals to address the issue of drug dependency.

“You can bring in new laws, amend laws, and even abolish laws. Ultimately, if we are not ready to provide a systematic and holistic approach to decriminalising drug use, such a policy, if introduced, will fail,” he added.

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