Scientific reason broke through the dominant political rhetoric on drugs in Southeast Asia last month. Instead of the “war on drugs” narrative favored by the region’s populists, Malaysia’s government said it was time to put “science and public health before punishment and incarceration” as it proposed decriminalizing personal drug use.
The plan to remove criminal penalties for the possession and use of drugs in small quantities (as opposed to those involved in drug trafficking) is a bold move in a country that currently has some of the world’s most punitive drug laws.
“Malaysia is about to embark on a significant game-changer policy,” Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said in a statement. “An addict shall be treated as a patient (not as a criminal), whose addiction is a disease we will like to cure.”
That the plan was jointly put forward by the health minister and the home affairs minister sent a powerful message of the government’s intent, said Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
“For decades people who use drugs, whether recreationally or those who have developed an addiction, have been placed within the criminal justice system,” said Kamarulzaman, known for pioneering a harm reduction program among injecting drug users during Malaysia’s HIV epidemic in the 2000s. It’s a “paradigm shift,” she says, to treat rather than punish addiction.
The announcement comes at a time experts are amplifying calls for Asia’s governments to radically rethink their approach to drugs. Data shows the so-called war on drugs has failed. A recent report from the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), reviewing the last decade of drug policies in Asia, said draconian laws and the misplaced pursuit of a “drug-free world” had failed to reduce the scale of the drug market. Instead drug usage had surged, with a devastating impact on people and communities. The greatest increases were observed, IDPC said, for amphetamine-type stimulants — in 2016 they were used by 17.45 million people in Asia, up from 8.74 million in 2011.
By contrast, the evidence that backs up the case for decriminalization seems to be growing stronger. Evidence from around the world suggests that treating problematic drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one is a more successful model for keeping communities healthy and safe. To take one specific example, since Portugal decriminalized the possession of drugs for personal use in 2001, drug-related deaths have decreased. Analysis by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation also suggests that removing the criminal penalties did not cause an increase in levels of drug use, as had been feared by some.
Malaysia’s proposed decriminalization would move the nation in the direction endorsed by the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and multiple health, legal, and rights experts. Around 25 countries have now removed criminal penalties for the personal possession of some or all drugs in a sign of the global shift toward decriminalization.
Portugal’s success holds important lessons for Malaysia, says Professor Kamarulzaman, pointing to the country’s investment in treatment and support alongside the legal change. “It’s equally if not more important than the actual decriminalization,” she said, adding that Malaysia will “have to train a whole cadre of health professionals and support staff to cope with the demands of different drug users.”
Waiting on the Details
There are several important questions about the shape Malaysia’s proposed reforms would take. It’s still unclear, for instance, what impact changes to the law would have on those presently incarcerated for the personal use of drugs. Disproportionate punishments have led to massively overcrowded prisons in the region. People jailed for drug crimes, many for nonviolent behavior such as drug use and possession, form the majority of prison populations in many Asian countries.
Another major concern surrounds the use of compulsory “rehabilitation” in detention centers, says Gloria Lai, IDPC’s Asia director, who is waiting for more detail on what Malaysia’s reforms would mean for those forcibly detained.
“While we really welcome moves to take a health-based approach to drugs we want to emphasize that this shouldn’t lead to forced rehabilitation,” Lai said. The IDPC estimates that over 450,000 people in Asia are detained in such centers including in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, and China.
Much is still being discussed, according to close observers, about the nature of the proposed reforms. Malaysia is already treading carefully given the sensitivities that can surround decriminalization. The coalition government, which came to power last year on a reform agenda, is particularly taking great pains to emphasize that decriminalization is not legalization. It knows the importance of keeping the broadly conservative public informed on an issue that has the potential for political opponents to launch attacks.
Other Southeast Asian nations have also taken steps toward changing their drug policies in recent years. Thailand, which is still debating decriminalization, has made important health-based reforms. And Myanmar has also moved toward decriminalization for drug use, but still retains prison penalties for possession.
The region at large, however, persists with some of the world’s most draconian drug policies. Nowhere has this been more evident in recent years than in the Philippines. Activists say that at least 27,000 people have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016 on a platform of crushing drugs. The violent campaign has had reverberations across the region. Neighboring Indonesia is thought to have borrowed Duterte’s language to refuel its own drug wars while rights groups have also observed subsequent emboldened anti-drugs campaigns in Cambodia.
In this landscape, Malaysia chartering a health-oriented path could offer a breakthrough of sorts in the regional discourse surrounding drugs. The fact its ministers are talking about the evidence “instead of resorting to the usual scaremongering about drugs” is significant, said Lai, the regional IDPC director. “It definitely helps to open conversations about alternative approaches to drug use.”