THE number of drug users, addicts and drug-related offenders continues to rise in Malaysia over the years, raising concerns about how to move forward and whether the country is taking the right approach.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had recently said the drug menace had reached a new level despite countless efforts to curb it and the authorities needed to gain the upper hand.
Zahid, who is also home minister, called on everyone to work together to find the right formula in the war against drugs but gave an assurance the country would not emulate Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s method of sanctioning law enforcers to gun down drug pushers.
Raising awareness of the dangers of drugs, using substitute substances such as methadone, religious intervention, psycho-logical and sociological motivations are among the many measures taken to fight the drug scourge.
Last year, there were 30,844 users, 22,923 of whom were new addicts and 7,921 of those who relapsed after being rehabilitated. In comparison, the figure in 2010, according to the National Anti-Drug Agency (Nada), stood at 23,642 drug addicts, 17,238 of whom were new users.
The Pahang Drugs Intervention Community project manager Khalid Hashim had pointed out some programmes and methods implemented might not be suitable anymore, resulting in a failure to achieve certain targets.
He believes an aggressive approach, in accordance with current needs, has to be implemented to tackle drug-related issues and help counter the menace more effectively.
“We do not deny that there are programmes which fail to reach their objectives, but that does not mean that all programmes (to tackle drug issues) have to be stopped. Overall, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), like Drug Intervention Community, have their own modules and approaches to rehabilitate or curb the problem.
“Our approach has to cater to the currents needs. Gone are the days when traditional drugs like heroin, ganja and morphine were used and sold on the market. These days, drug manufacturers are more advanced and deal with synthetic drugs,” he said.
According to Nada, methamphetamine, ecstasy and ketamine are commonly-abused synthetic drugs that have led to the prevalence of drug-induced mental problems.
Former drug addict turned advocate Zulkifli Zambry said the answer in steering others from drugs was harm reduction.
“Harm reduction aims to reduce the dangers associated with the use of drugs in people who are unable or unwilling to stop.
“Harm reduction policies, programmes and practices focus on the prevention of harm, rather than the prevention of drug use itself, with emphasis on people who continue to use drugs.
“It’s about setting up the appropriate regulatory framework to ensure that harm is minimised,” he said.
He said drug addicts could overcome their addictions, but not quickly as it took more than willpower to solve the problem.
Someone with a substance abuse problem cannot be forced to simply quit as drug abuse can lead to changes in the brain, resulting in powerful cravings and a compulsion to take drugs that make overcoming the addiction seem like an impossible goal.
Zulkifli, 51, noted that the government had been successful in helping drug addicts during the period of rehabilitation but needed to provide more post-rehab support.
“Why is it so hard to quit drugs? The problem is what happens after rehab is over.
“They need vigilant and comprehensive ongoing treatments for addiction recovery, which had been lacking,” said Zulkifli, who has been drug-free for 14 years.
He noted that addicts were afraid of what would happen if they did not continue taking drugs.
Society’s attitude towards drug addicts had also prevented a mature critical engagement.
He said the belief and values in society were such that a drug addict was often seen as an outcast.
“Parents refuse to confront what their children had done on their watch.
“They are hesitant to seek help, complicated by the stigma and negative attitudes toward drug addiction.
“In the end, drug addicts are denied the level of care they need, leading to deadly consequences,” said Zulkifli, who works for Ikhlas Community Welfare Association of Malaysia, an NGO that helps drug users, particularly intravenous drug users and those diagnosed as HIV positive.
TURNING TO RELIGION
Friendship Group for Inter-Religious Service (FGIS) coordinator Prof Dr Suresh Govind said an essential element of drug abuse prevention was by socialising with the right crowd.
Dr Suresh said peers could play an important role in influencing the behaviour and reaction of teenagers involved in these activities.
He said various programmes and measures by the authorities to combat drug and alcohol abuse were ineffective without the support and guidance of those close to the addicts.
The best way to help young people steer clear of drugs and alcohol, he said, was to make them aware of the ill effects.
“How do we get the younger generation to be aware of the ill effects of drug and alcohol abuse? We feel the best way is to empower them through young people,” Dr Suresh said in an interview with Bernama.
“Sometimes, the advice of peers is a better way of educating them. For instance, if a teenager is interested in trying out cigarettes or drugs, his peers should advise and stop him from doing it.”
However, Dr Suresh said, teenagers must be equipped with information concerning drug abuse so that they could help stop their friends from becoming addicts.
TAKING A LEAP OF FAITH ON MEDICAL TREATMENT
Social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said jail wouldn’t really help addicts and it was time to stop sending them there.
The focus, he said, should be on medical treatment.
Lee said many drug addicts entered rehabilitation treatment programmes only to relapse, not because they were incapable of recovery, but because they had been largely denied the therapeutic interventions most likely to produce success.
He also pointed out that parents had a major impact on their child’s decision not to use drugs.
“Where are the parents? Do they know where their children are at all times? I hope action can be taken against parents who let their children get involved in drugs,” he said.
On another note, he said the government was heading in the right direction in trying to correct the perception of drug addicts.
He praised the recent move by the government in amending the Dangerous Drugs Act so that it would not be mandatory to sentence a drug trafficker to death.
“It is timely for judges to be given the discretion to mete out suitable sentences on a case-by-case basis, especially for drug mules.
“Drug addiction should be seen more as a medical, psychiatric and social problem and less as a criminal problem,” said Lee, who is also Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF) senior vice-chairman.
Lee, who is also a former vice-president of the Malaysian Drug Prevention Association (Pemadam), said Malaysia should learn from other countries that struggled with illicit drugs.
From using prohibition to curtail the use of drugs to decriminalising it, Lee said there was no harm in trying to do things differently, especially if the methods had been proven to work.
Meanwhile, the government said methadone programmes had been found to be effective measures, both in reducing harm arising from drug addiction and in helping people to quit.
MOVING FORWARD WITH METHADONE
Nada director-general Datuk Dr Abdul Halim Mohd Hussin said the use of methadone as an opioid substitution — introduced in the country 15 years ago — had shown promising results in treating drug addicts.
“Usually, we use methadone
for addicts to survive by not relying on other drug substitutions,” he said.
Methadone is used as a medical-assisted therapy to treat severe addiction of drugs, such as opium, morphine and heroin.
“The minimum period of using methadone as a treatment is between two and four years, depending on the addicts. It needs to be taken in fluid form to control their addiction,” he said.
The use of methadone as an opioid substitution, however, needs to be approved by the Health Ministry as the study of the drug’s effectiveness was examined by it.
On such an evidence-based drug policy, Halim said it was used to test the effectiveness of a drug in helping addicts.
“We use it when doing experiments in order to look for the cure. The evidence-based drug policy is proof of a drug’s effectiveness as we do a background check and research to verify the effectiveness in order to cure addicts,” he added.
Back in September 2006, the first phase of the methadone pioneer project was proven successful, as assessed by the Health Ministry.
The number of addicts seeking help at government treatment centres has increased by 84 per cent in the first year when it started.
Many treatment centres had received positive feedback from clients.
“The project successfully helped clients return to society.
“They gained stable employment and stayed clean, which are critical to a successful transition, giving hope to even the most hardcore drug addict,” he said.
A setback, however, is that the cost of methadone in the country is RM50 for 30ml. Methadone in many other countries is cheaper, allowing addicts to have better access.