Groundbreaking, says advocate on decriminalising personal drug use

The home and health ministers say the government is working towards decriminalising substance dependency. (Reuters pic.)

PETALING JAYA: A drug reform advocate has hailed the government’s intention to decriminalise personal drug use as groundbreaking but cautioned that it should not be confused with legalising drugs.

Samantha Chong agreed with de facto law minister Liew Vui Keong that drug addiction should be seen as a social health issue that needed to be managed by the health sectors and not by the criminal justice system.

She said the recent joint statement by the home and health ministers that the government planned to decriminalise substance dependency was in tandem with what Liew had said in January.

Chong, who is also a lawyer, said drug addiction was a chronic relapsing medical condition, where relapse was part of the process, especially when triggered by chronic stress such as losing a job, divorce or the death of a loved one.

“At present, the law criminalises addiction by way of mandatory registration, where people who receive drug dependence treatment will be registered as criminal, and medical practitioners are mandated by law to report their patients to the authorities.

“Due to the fear of criminal record and risk of losing their jobs, many refuse to seek help. This causes their condition to deteriorate, which could lead to drug induced psychosis in serious cases.

“By decriminalising addiction, Malaysia has taken a huge step forward where the drug issue is seen as a public health issue. It is also in line with latest international standards,” she told FMT.

Drug offences in Malaysia currently fall under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952.

To the man on the street, Chong cautioned that decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption should not be confused with legalisation of drugs.

She pointed out that decriminalisation meant the removal of criminal penalties for selected activities.

“By decriminalising addiction, the government has now made drug dependence treatment more accessible. This helps to reduce the stigma related to addiction.”

Chong, a former deputy public prosecutor, said Malaysians should not be too alarmed about the government’s plan to decriminalise addiction.

She said what this meant was that instead of channeling those with drug use disorder through the criminal justice system, they were referred to voluntary evidence-based treatment.

Chong said there was a decrease in the number of arrests of repeat users when a trial was carried out in 2005 and 2006.

However, she said the government needed to move beyond decriminalising addiction to include possession for personal consumption.

“We need to be careful not to fall under merely decriminalising addiction but not possession for personal consumption.

“It doesn’t mean we are condoning drug use but it simply does not make sense just to decriminalise addiction.

“This is because, like how smokers will always have a few cigarettes with them for personal consumption, most PWUD (people who use drugs) will also carry a small amount of drugs,” she said.

Chong said failure by the government to decriminalise possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use would still lead to mass arrests and leave the problem unsolved.

“This is because instead of arresting them for drug use, they will be arrested for drug possession which was never intended for distribution,” she said.

She debunked the assumption that decriminalisation of possession for personal consumption would lead to an increase in drug use.

“Instead, evidence from countries such as Portugal and Switzerland shows a decrease in problematic drug use and deaths due to overdose,” she said.