This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Malaysia has long imposed harsh penalties on using drugs, sometimes even resorting to the death penalty for offenders found trafficking drugs. But in a landmark move, the country has vowed to move towards decriminalising drug addiction and drug possession for personal use in what Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad described as a "game changer policy". This dropping of criminal penalties for possessing and using small quantities of drugs is an effort towards battling drug addiction in a country which has seen a relapse rate of 50 percent consistently since the past few decades, and where “minor-drug offenders” make up over half the nation’s prison population.
However, Dzulkefly emphasised that this did not mean Malaysia was legalising drugs, just that the decision was “a sensible path forward” in a time when 30 countries around the world have already taken similar steps. "Decriminalisation is the removal of criminal penalties for possessing and using a small quantity of drugs for personal use, as opposed to those who are involved in trafficking drugs," he said in a statement. "Trafficking of drugs will undoubtedly remain a crime." The ministry said the move would be a critical next step towards "achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration", calling addiction "a complex chronic relapsing medical condition". With this move, an addict will be treated as a patient with a disease and not a criminal.
This is an unprecedented step as under the current legislation, people found using drugs can be fined and jailed whereas those found trafficking drugs (i.e. caught with 200 grams or more of cannabis or 15 grams or more of heroin or morphine) are charged under an offence that carries the mandatory death penalty. Drug reform advocate Samantha Chong believed that it was the fear of criminal record and risk of losing their jobs that made those addicted to drugs turn away from asking for help. “By decriminalising addiction, the government has now made drug dependence treatment more accessible. This helps to reduce the stigma related to addiction,” she said.
However, details of the policy are still unclear, with no clarification on when the proposed changes would be introduced. Just on June 21, Malaysia’s National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) chief Datuk Seri Zulkifli Abdullah had told Malay Mail at a press conference that forced-rehabilitation for those caught in raids remains effective in battling drug addiction. “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,” he said. “But what we are doing is to save them: we have to arrest them to save them.”
Also, criminologists believe this progressive-sounding strategy can backfire, and requires fine-tuning before putting it out there. “Those in the illegal drug trade are probably rejoicing at this news,” said criminologist and head of Universiti Sains Malaysia research team on crime and policing, Assoc Prof Dr P. Sundramoorthy, to Malaysia daily The Sun. He is also worried that the new law might lead to more people trying out drugs because they would no longer be afraid of criminal prosecution. But at the same time, he acknowledged its benefits as well by saying, “(However), we will be reducing the number of ‘criminals’ in Malaysia by the tens of thousands. Drug addicts who intend to wean off their addiction will reach out for help without fear of prosecution.”
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