KUALA LUMPUR: Walking into the second floor of a shophouse at Lorong Haji Taib 4 in Chow Kit here, I found myself face to face with a sobering message scrawled across a white board on the wall.
“Syringe Needle Exchange Programme” the message read. Below was the schedule for needle distribution, neatly broken down according to days of the week.
“Have a seat while you wait for Encik Zul,” a female staff said, walking away briskly before I could ask her name.
The sparsely furnished space I was sitting in was the office of Ikhlas Community Welfare Association of Malaysia (PKKIM), an NGO that helps drug users, particularly intravenous drug users and those diagnosed as HIV positive.
PKKIM also has the run of the first floor of the shophouse, that it uses for community activities that include counselling programmes. At other times, the space is used by drug users to either rest.
Soon, “Encik Zul” or Zulkiflee Zamrie, the programme manager of PKKIM, arrives and ushers me into a room so we can have some privacy.
“Although this programme has been in existence for a long time, we were only officially set up in 2013. It is an initiative by former drug users, I was told.
“When we first got going, some of us had been free of drugs for good, while others were still undergoing treatment,” recalls Zulkiflee, 50, a former drug user himself. He gave up drugs for good in 2002.
Addicted to needles and methadone
Besides offering treatment and support programmes to drug users, PKKIM’s core concern is “harm reduction”.
This is achieved through the needle exchange programme and the use of methadone as a substitute for hard drugs, the two most common methods used in the rehabilitation of drug users.
With the help of grants from the health ministry, said Zulkiflee, PKKIM has distributed needles to drug-users directly. Those in need of methadone meanwhile are referred to government clinics.
When asked the reason behind the needle exchange programme, Zulkiflee explained this helped stop drug users from sharing needles with one another, the main cause for the spread of the HIV virus.
Methadone meanwhile helped ease the withdrawal symptoms experienced by those who stopped taking drugs. Methadone however did not give drug users a “high” as heroin did.
Zulkiflee said however that both the needle exchange programme and supply of methadone was largely misunderstood by society at large, many of whom criticised the government for supporting the drug habit.
“The key words here are ‘harm reduction’ … not to stop drug-taking abruptly. It is human nature, people do not like to be forced.
“Of course, the final goal is to stop taking drugs completely, but it should be done step by step. So we give them needles so that they don’t share them, and methadone to reduce their dependence on hard drugs like heroin,” said Zulkiflee.
He said the methadone programme had also helped reduce the crime rate among drug users, who often resorted to stealing to pay for their cravings.
Only addicts understand addicts
Several weeks before this interview, PKKIM hosted a dialogue “TN50 My Inspiration: Voices from the Street”, jointly organised with the Malaysian Youth Council.
During the dialogue, some drug-users in the audience spoke of how society did not understand how tough it was for them.
Nasharol CM Nasir, who participated in the PKKIM programme for three months, said he felt like an “alien” and an “object on exhibition” while staying temporarily at a government transit centre.
In the PKKIM programme, the term “drug users” was used instead of the more common “drug addicts”, perhaps because of the term’s more neutral connotation.
Zulkiflee said the “support-help” programme held three times a week usually involved those who had already broken free of drugs.
“They are the ‘success stories’, those who have returned to society to resume their normal lives. This method is effective because they understand the plight of those in the same boat as them once.
“People who have no experience with drugs cannot understand how drug users feel. The perception among drug users is that it is easy for these people (non-drug users) to say all sorts of things because they have no experience of it themselves,” he said.
PKKIM also holds Quran and religious learning classes.
Zulkiflee, who started using drugs in 1982, succeeded in kicking the habit and has stayed “clean” until now only because he was a regular at PKKIM’s support sessions.
“In 2002, I stopped taking drugs completely and have stayed out of it until now. Before then, I tried three to four times but could not sustain it,” he said, realising only later that it was mainly because he was trying to kick the habit on his own, without the support of anyone including his family.
“The physical pain experienced after a drug user stops using, lasts only two to three weeks, but the pain your spirit experiences lasts for years on end. Before, when a drug user encounters sadness or happiness, he had drugs to turn to, but after giving up the habit, there is only emptiness and many drug users do not know how to go on living.
“Because of such emotions, it is not uncommon for drug users to stay clean for a few years and then relapse. The support-help group understood what I went through,” he said, adding how thankful he was that his parents got to see him fully rehabilitated before they passed away.
Zulkiflee said the main message he wanted to send to society was simply to give drug users the chance to live again.
“Look at what they have to undergo – being called dregs of society, the living dead. See the images of them on television.
“Leave the issue of drug taking to be tackled later. The important thing is to encourage them to live one day at a time. To enable the process of living to take place, and this process will eventually lead them out of their problems,” he said.