Drug war 4.0 must be won

THE commitment announced by the deputy prime minister last week to battle the drug abuse menace yet again is laudable.

The issue has been gnawing the fabric of society and affecting untold numbers from all walks of life for far too long. That we have failed as admitted is probably an understatement given that some five decades have passed without as much urgency as fighting "terrorism" for example.

Yet the drug scourge is no less terrorising. Many terror groups use the drug trade as their lifeline. But somehow it does not get the "right" attention it deserves or sporadically at best. Given the millions who have died prematurely relative to those killed in the war on terrorism, we must get our priorities right to avert further failures.

My mind goes back to the early 70s when I first got involved in the fight against drug abuse as a student volunteer. And to read about its worsening scenario with a plethora of new and more potent substances in the "market" is depressing. Let alone the alarming number of drug users and offenders caught in the loop. One cannot help to draw the analogy, viz, if this was a war against terrorism, we would have been overrun many times a long time ago. Yet we seem mostly complacent and compromising.

Eradicating the problem is an all-out war. Indeed, during wartime the movement of drugs is under close surveillance because it is regarded as part of the "tools" of the enemy (think the Vietnam War).

It is by no means an easy task but it has been done. Countries like the Philippines, and now Indonesia, are taking such a hard line to suit the current situation and context. Led no less by President Duterte himself who has a credible record to back him up as a former mayor of Davao. He is single-minded on delivering on his promise. And he is achieving results despite the controversy.

Like it or not there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution to handle such a complex issue, just like the pushers and smugglers who tailor their operations to suit their customers.

Taking into consideration the level of corruption among those involved, the state of commitment and (un)preparedness or simply the (dismal) performance records of "success" of each country, they "outsmart" every strategy known because they are single-minded about their "mission". Human rights is not a concern for them. We must "match" this, so as not to fight an asymmetrical war to our disadvantage where our able-bodied citizens are killed prematurely or are turned into the walking dead.

Thus, as always each country must decide on what is best with one exception: a "soft" approach may not be enough to outsmart – to quote the DPM – the hardcore criminals who have no regard for innocent lives in ruthlessly pursuing their unbridled greed. So too the "insiders" who work with them.

To put things into simple perspective, let us call the current situation drug war 4.0. The choice of 4.0 is to signify "death" as the ultimate outcome if we fail yet again. Failure is no longer an option.

Drug war 1.0 would be the fight against traditional mixtures like sirih and pinang (areca nut) which is culturally prevalent. However, the degree of addiction associated with its use is usually considered "low", with almost no record of death directly due to the addiction itself. It is losing its appeal and less problematic nowadays.

Drug war 2.0 also revolves around the natural types but with a higher degree of addiction, although the death rate is still relatively low. Daun ketum and ganja (hashish) will be in this category. The latter is now regarded as comparatively "safe" so much so in several countries it has been legalised or decriminalised as a form of therapeutic substance sold in the public domain for personal use.

This is a point to note because the drug war 3.0, which includes natural sources like tobacco and nicotine-containing plant parts, is the counterpoint to this. Coca leaves may also be in the same group primarily because they all have a similar (higher) degree of addiction.

Unlike the previous two versions, this group is known to kill its users in the millions. Of more relevance to us are the tobacco leaves, inclusive of the nicotine contained in them. When disguised as tradable products, the packaging warrants a mandatory label to the effect that "tobacco kills" apart from other deadly health warnings. This is a universal practice now.

So here is the counterpoint. While Malaysia may be adamant not to accept international and World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations to "legalise" drugs like "ganja" for fear it will exacerbate the existing drug abuse scourge, in reality it already has in its midst a well-functioning "gateway" substance which does just that.

This refers to tobacco-products openly sold almost everywhere with virtually no control at all. At some locations, they can be obtained "duty-free" ironically with a stark warning that the product kills clearly labelled on its packaging. I read this as an advertisement for "duty-free death" (read: life is cheap once addicted) that the authorities are unashamedly promoting.

What is more, it is common knowledge that a stick of tobacco-laden product has no less than 4,000 toxic substances – some are carcinogenic. It boggles the mind as to what justification, if any, there can be to have such an obnoxious killer product in our midst, and as an enticing duty-free item.

Hence, to take a chest-thumping position against WHO's so-called recommendations to legalise some drugs looks "dumb" without taking an even harder stance to back and strictly implement the legally binding WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) aimed at eradicating the globalised tobacco epidemic especially in the Global South.

We failed because we are "ambivalent" about this despite being a signatory to FCTC for more than a decade, unlike our more committed neighbours to the north and south. The kiddie pack and the vape-issues are more recent examples; it took a royal "decree" to decide on the latter and the former is still in a limbo.

Of course, the bigger issue is our failure to find a substitute to replace tobacco as a subsistence crop in some of the poorest parts of the country.

When there were credible suggestions they were not implemented in earnest so that the dependency on the tobacco growing industry could be dismantled and the influence on its use too. After all, the standard of local tobacco leaves are not the best there is, while the health hazards are just as high.

In short, the "gateway" to drug abuse has been wide open all along contributing significantly to the marked failure that the deputy prime minister was lamenting about.

Ignoring this single factor is a sure indicator of many more failures taking us closer to "death" in the drug war 4.0 with all its complexities: ranging from drug-related crimes, accidents especially involving motor vehicles (another nationwide killer), as well as other socio-economic problems like corruption, unemployment and compulsive behaviours causing more social upheavals involving even younger age groups.

That said, drug war 4.0 must be won before we become a narco-state come TN50.

The writer was a member in the World Health Organisation Expert Advisory Panel on Drug Policy and Management, and the WHO Scientific Committee of Tobacco Product Regulation. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com