Malaysia's Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad. Source: Utusan Malaysia

Drug addiction a chronic medical condition; decriminalisation is not legalisation: Malaysia’s Health Minister on removing criminal penalties against personal drug use

While the move to decriminalise drug addiction stems from the understanding that addiction is a chronic medical condition requiring appropriate intervention instead of incarceration, the Malaysian government has stressed that decriminalisation is not the equivalent of legalisation.

Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, in an official statement yesterday (27 Jun), quoted former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s stance on governments’ approach in the war against drugs, in which he said: “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrongheaded governmental policies have destroyed many more. I think it’s obvious that after 40 years of war on drugs, it has not worked. There should be decriminalization of drugs.”

Calling the move “significant” and a “game-changer”, Dzulkefly recognises that “drug use and addiction is admittedly a complex chronic relapsing medical condition”, and that there are multiple factors that may contribute to substance abuse and addiction, ranging from genetic predisposition to external factors such as poor living conditions and peer pressure.

“If someone continues to take drugs, biological changes start happening in their brain. Therefore it is not so easy to reverse that biological change.

“Certainly putting them in prison is not going to change that. It is not just a matter of someone having a weak willpower,” added the Health Minister.

“Drug decriminalisation will indeed be a critical next step towards achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration. An addict shall be treated as a patient (not as a criminal), whose addiction is a disease we will like to cure,” Dzulkefly proposed.

He added that research has shown that decriminalisation does not exacerbate drug abuse and drug-related crimes, and in fact it reduces the costs borne by the criminal justice system as a result of incarcerating and punishing those who use drugs.

“Decades of evidence has clearly demonstrated that decriminalisation is a sensible path forward that would reap vast human and fiscal benefits, while protecting families and communities,” said Dzulkefly.

Malaysia’s National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) chief Zulkifli Abdullah, however, expressed his concerns over proposals to decriminalise drug abuse.

He told Malay Mail last Fri (21 Jun) at a press conference: “I support the idea that (addiction) is a health issue… but we still have to make arrests because when the public complains, we need to act.

“What we are doing is to save them … We have to arrest them to save them,” added Zulkifli.

Earlier this week, Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin revealed that around 70,000 prisoners in Malaysia’s jails were drug addicts, and that the decriminalisation of drug addiction will give them more opportunities for rehabilitation and treatment, particularly when supported by their family members and the community.

Drug trafficking, however, remains a crime punishable by death, as Dzulkefly stressed that the removal of criminal penalties will only apply to the possession and use of “a small quantity of drugs”.

Singapore similarly continues to uphold the death penalty for drug trafficking. However, the government’s approach in fighting drug-related crimes as a whole remains a more hardline one than the one being adopted by the Republic’s northern neighbour.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has repeatedly expressed the government’s stance on the use of recreational drugs, and has criticised the way certain States and human rights groups have framed the discourse on such drugs only from the perspective of public health and personal freedoms.

“Human rights is ‘my individual freedom to consume drugs’ — that is how it was put forward. What about the impact on society? If you take that argument, then you would have the human right to do almost anything you like,” Shanmugam was quoted by TODAY as saying in late May this year.

He added that the financial backing of lobbyists has compelled legislators to amend or revamp anti-drug laws in certain countries, in addition to influencing the media and advertising industries in “pushing” cannabis “as healthy and safe” in such countries, which is, in his view, a “misleading and unscientific” message to convey to the public.

In Singapore, those suspected by the Director of the Central Narcotics Bureau to be drug addicts may be subjected to medical examinations and observation, or to urine and/or hair testing under Section 34 of the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA).

Depending on the outcome of the tests, those tested positive for controlled drugs, and are subsequently arrested only for drug consumption under Section 8(b) of MDA, may be ordered to undergo treatment ranging from six months to three years at the Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs).

Drug addicts from age 16 to 21 will be placed in a 6-month residence at the Community Rehabilitation Centre (CRC) upon being detained in the DRC.

For those caught abusing drugs for the first time and second time, the order for treatment and rehabilitation would be made in lieu of a jail sentence. Subsequent arrests may lead to a court trial and, following that, long-term imprisonment, starting at five years and a minimum of three strokes of the cane.

However, The Straits Times reported that the Parliament had proposed last Nov changes to the MDA to differentiate drug abusers who do not engage in criminal activities to sustain their addiction, and those who do.

For the former category, Parliament suggested shorter periods of incarceration and earlier reintegration into society.

In a statement on the Bill tabled by Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo, the Ministry of Home Affairs said: “The enhanced rehabilitation regime, targeted at abusers who do not face other concurrent charges, will help them break the cycle of addiction more effectively and reintegrate into society sooner.”