Feature: Under the influence

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 08 Sep 2019

Reaching out: The National Anti-Drugs Agency runs Cure & Care Clinics around the country that provide voluntary rehabilitation and drug addiction recovery services.

DRUG addiction will soon be decriminalised in Malaysia.

Rather than viewing it as a crime, the Government is proposing that drug addiction be treated as a health problem.

Such a step has been lauded by parties who believe drug addicts should be rehabilitated for their condition instead of being put behind bars.

Moreover, this will definitely encourage repentant drug addicts to seek help.

Data from the National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) made available to Sunday Star reveals that a total of 124,466 drug addicts were recorded between 2014 and June this year.

The most common type of drugs consumed are opiates like morphine and heroin (47.5%), followed by syabu (43.9%) and others including ganja (5.2%).

Kedah topped the list as the state with the highest number of drug addicts, making up 11.7% (14,522) of the total.

Kelantan comes second at 11.2% (13,950), followed by Penang at 11% (13,686) and Selangor at 10.4% (12,918).

The top reason for people to spiral into drug addiction is because of influence from friends, says AADK director-general Datuk Seri Zulkifli Abdullah.

“This remains the number one reason after all these years.

“Some youths get involved with drugs due to lack of attention from their families.

“This happens among well-to-do families too, whose parents work day and night,” he says in a phone interview.

Such neglect and lack of supervision can make youths susceptible to being influenced by people and bad company.

Zulkifli says many addicts start when they are 16 or 17, which are formative teen years.

Recently, it was reported that a 13-year-old boy in Alor Setar dropped out of school because he was a drug addict.

Based on AADK’s data, the number of new drug addicts have steadily dipped from 22,814 in 2016, 18,112 in 2017 to 17,315 last year.

As of June this year, there were 7,276 new cases.

A similar trend was also observed for drug relapse cases with 4,648 in 2016, decreasing to 3,242 in 2017, 2,908 in 2018 and 966 as of June.

But despite the decline, drug addiction is still a serious problem in Malaysia.

Almost all addicts are male (96.1%), according to the statistics.

And sadly, most addicts are in the prime of their youth, with the largest age group being between 19 and 39 (73.8%).

Some 23.4% are aged 40 and above, while the remaining 2.8% are teens aged between 13 and 18.

At present, drug possession is an offence which can be punished with a maximum fine of RM100,000, five years’ jail or both, under Section 12(3) of the Dangerous Drugs Act.

However, Zulkifli points out that another law, the Drug Dependants (Treatment And Rehabilitation) Act allows for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts, akin to “treating a disease”.

“Addicts are like patients. We should help them so that more of them will come forward to be rehabilitated.

“Drug addiction needs to be stamped out because it can lead to other problems.

“However, should they commit crimes because of their addiction, they must be dealt with accordingly under the law,” he says.

And there is no way the authorities are going soft on the war against drugs, as drug trafficking will remain a crime.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in helping addicts is something numbers cannot quantify: social stigma.

“People still view addicts as outcasts. But we should see them as a friend who has a disease.

“They are sick and they need help,” says Zulkifli.

He adds that when society shuns them and they can’t find jobs, they may have a relapse and become addicted again.

“So they need support from the community and their family. Help them stay clean.

“Malaysians have to change their perception towards drug addicts,” he says.

In July, it was reported that 55% of drug addicts in the country have been successfully rehabilitated.

Zulkifli says the AADK plans to dig deeper and wants to do a nationwide prevalence study on drug addiction to see how serious the situation is in the country.

“We want to have a thorough study on those involved to better address the problem effectively.

“We hope to get the results of this study by next year,” he adds.

In an effort to prevent youths from taking drugs, AADK also plans to spread the message of the dangers of drugs through social media campaigns.

Lauding the decriminalisation of drug addiction, Universiti Malaya Centre of Addiction Sciences (UMCAS) chief coordinator Assoc Prof Dr Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin says “addiction is a medical condition and prison is not the answer”.

“Evidence shows that decriminalising drug possession for personal use did not lead to an increase in drug usage.

“Instead, problematic drug use and death from overdose decreased significantly, and more people received the drug dependence treatment they need,” he says.

The move also does not mean legalising or tolerating drug use or possession.

“On the contrary, police can divert people who use drugs from the criminal justice system to an evidence based health support system that is proven to be effective and cost saving,” he explains.

Dr Amer Siddiq also points out that some are merely experimenting with drugs and don’t have drug use disorders.

“In cases like these, it is better to refer them to counselling than imposing any criminal penalties. Any form of criminal penalty would leave a criminal record which can hinder future employment, leading to further advanced addiction,” he says.

He adds that criminalisation deters people from coming forward with their addiction problems for fear of being “caught” under the present law.

Dr Amer Siddiq also agrees that influence from peers is a main risk factor for youths to spiral into drug addiction and parents must be on alert.

“I think the drug problem will be around for a long time.

“What we need is a newer approach to solve a problem which has plagued us in Malaysia.

“Decriminalisation might be able to assist us, as seen in Portugal for example,” he says.

Portugal, which decriminalised drug addiction in 2001, reportedly saw more people voluntarily entering treatment while overdose deaths and problematic drug usage decreased.

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