Thursday, September 30, 2010

Addressing Malaysia’s Drug Addict Problem

HISTORICALLY, drugs have been seen as a threat to the country's national security, and the response has been to impose the death sentence on drug dealers and harsh mandatory penalties on drug users. Under the Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act 1983, those who tested positive for drugs were sent to drug rehabilitation centres. But from the medical point of view, there was hardly any treatment -- only cold-turkey detoxification and a regimen of boot-camp discipline and training for two years. And despite the shock abstinence-based treatment to wean them from drugs and the two-year after-care programme, about 70 per cent went back on drugs, and the number of addicts kept on rising.

However, despite these failings, the government was slow to consider other approaches. Though the Health Ministry was given the authority to introduce drug substitution therapy in government clinics in 2005, it was not available in the rehab centres. Moreover, even when prescribing medication to treat addiction worked and drug substitution therapy was extended to private clinics, law enforcers persisted in treating those who sought treatment as offenders, harassing and arresting them. Fortunately, the government has acknowledged, in the words of the new National Anti-Drug Agency director-general Datuk Zuraidah Mohamed, that "after 27 years" there was not "much progress", and it was time to find more innovative and effective alternatives.

In place of the old rehab centres, which "resemble a prison", there will be 1Malaysia Cure and Care Clinics where addicts can seek treatment voluntarily, without fear of arrest or being forced into registering as drug offenders. The first clinic started operations in Sungai Besi on July 1, five more are to be opened by year-end, and the home minister is making a proposal to the cabinet to expand it nationwide.

This significant change in policy signals a new sense of urgency. As drug dependency is a health issue that should be treated medically, there is a need to take a bolder but softer approach rather than a punitive one. While it is hoped these new measures can help to reverse the unhealthy trends of addiction, it will be hard to convince drug users to come forward to seek treatment if the new open approach is allowed to be negated by regressive laws, enforcement crackdowns, or moralistic attitudes on the ground. This is why efforts must be stepped up to decriminalise drug dependency, actively address the issue of the stigma of addiction and strengthen the community-based programmes to reintegrate rehabilitated addicts into society. The New Straits Times

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