Rethinking drug policy

13 Feb 2020 / 20:03 H.

I ATTENDED an anti-drug campaign during high school. “Don’t ever do drugs or your life will be ruined!” we were reminded repeatedly.

There was a big screen in the hall and there was pin drop silence when they played a video. It was about a man flogged 24 times for a crime.

For many of us, it was the first time we saw the naked buttocks of a grownup man. Pieces of flesh were ripped from his body. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

But did the scare tactic work? When the video ended, some of my schoolmates were traumatised. But others found it amusing, they cheered and clapped. Despite the intended effect, our school wasn’t drug free that year.

Drug prevention programme

The National Anti-Drug Agency often exhibits different types of drugs in schools to show students how harmful they are.

Last year, its director-general told a daily that two million students were at risk of drug abuse. Random urine tests were carried out in schools to deter students from using drugs.

I am not saying we should turn a blind eye. But the main reasons why teenagers use drugs are curiosity, broken families, trauma from abuse, mental illness, stress, boredom and peer pressure. Will random tests and harsh punitive action prevent drug abuse?

A true story

“When I was in Form 4, nine of my friends smoked ‘rokok daun’ in a school bus. The next day, the agency carried out urine tests in school. All of them tested positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and were jailed for a few weeks.

After their release, the headmaster caned them publicly. Some boys were suspended while others were expelled. Most of them ended up living problematic lives. But the one smoker who did not attend school that fateful day was able to escape punishment and is now a doctor.”

This true story reminds me of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who had admitted using drugs when they were younger. Would they have become president of the United States if they had been caught?

The Dangerous Drugs Act which criminalises drug use was enacted in 1952 when addiction was considered a security threat and not a medical condition. The law does not differentiate people who use drugs experimentally, for recreation, self-medication or are chronic users. It only provides a one size fits all solution. The punishment is either a fine, jail sentence or both. In any case, the criminal records will be a hurdle when they want to pursue higher education and deter future employment prospects.

Are students smart enough to tell drugs are bad?

Ahmad scored 7As in SPM. His father and sister were both in prison for minor drug offences. Feeling lonely and depressed, he mingled with the wrong crowd and became addicted to drugs. Does war on drugs break the cycle of addiction, or has it broken Ahmad’s family, making him vulnerable to drug addiction?

Addiction can be defined as the condition of being abnormally dependent on some habit, especially compulsive dependency on narcotic drugs. Negative emotions such as sadness, grief and shame if left unaddressed create tremendous potential for a relapse. Without evidence-based treatment and interventions, it is highly unlikely for Ahmad to break the cycle of addiction in prison.

The story of Rahul

I met Rahul and his family when I was a rookie deputy public prosecutor in children’s court. He was frequently in court for drug use and petty crime.

“Please send him to prison, I don’t know how to deal with him anymore,” said Rahul’s father.

His father didn’t understand that prison was not the solution. You might even expect Rahul to learn something and end his addiction while in prison. But the truth is prison officers are not trained to handle drug addiction.

Also, overcrowding in prison can fan the spread of diseases. A study revealed a high prevalence of latent TB among prisoners (88.8%) and prison staff (81%) in Kajang Prison. Instead of getting the needful intervention, Rahul was exposed to infectious diseases and hardcore criminals.

Last time we met, Rahul was in High Court facing a drug trafficking charge.

Why can’t we admit the ‘Just say no tactic’ is failing?

Most drug education programmes are aimed at preventing drug use. After instructions to abstain, the lesson ends. Abstinence is treated as the sole measure of success. Although the abstinence-only mandate is well-intended, this approach is clearly not enough. It is unrealistic to believe that at a time in their lives when they are most prone to risk-taking, teenagers will completely refrain from trying alcohol and/or other substances.

If we really want to minimise drug problems among young people, we need a “fall back” strategy that includes comprehensive education and puts the safety, welfare and future of our children in the forefront.

Drug prevention programmes should focus on enhancing decision-making ability for healthier lifestyle while providing active social support.

Perhaps it is wise to look at Iceland’s drug prevention model, which was designed around the idea of giving children better things to do. Technology and high level of social media use have changed the way children interact with others.

What worked before might not work now, and definitely won’t always work.

With the influx of information where drugs can be delivered from door to door, it is high time for Malaysia to embrace a comprehensive drug policy which is evidence-based encompassing prevention, supply reduction, treatment and harm reduction while working closely with the affected communities.

Samantha Chong is a former deputy public prosecutor and drug policy reform advocate. Some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.


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