KUALA LUMPUR, March 22 — Many countries, including Malaysia, face the issue of overcrowding in their prisons with a bulk of the prisoners comprising drug offenders.
To reduce congestion in Malaysian prisons, the government is drafting a new legislation, the Drug and Substance Abuse (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act, to decriminalise minor drug offences.
The proposed law, expected to be tabled in Parliament this year, will be applicable to offenders convicted under Section 15 (1) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 which carries a fine not exceeding RM5,000 or a jail term of not less than two years.
Drug rehabilitation experts have welcomed the move saying that it will enable drug addicts to be referred for treatment at the National Anti-Drug Agency’s (AADK) rehabilitation centres or undergo community-based treatment instead of being jailed as is the current practice.
Other countries have also decriminalised certain drug offences to ease prison congestion. Portugal, for example, had the highest number of drug addicts in the world before 2000. However, the number reduced after the nation implemented its decriminalisation policy and sent the addicts for treatment instead of imprisoning them.
The Netherlands also implemented a similar concept, and successfully reduced congestion in its prisons by 70 per cent.
Universiti Malaya’s Centre for Addiction Science Studies director and addiction specialist Prof Dr Rusdi Abd Rashid said although countries like Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden are far ahead of Malaysia in this aspect, the enactment of the new law will enable the government to deal more effectively with the problem of drug addiction in this country.
“In general, prisons worldwide are facing the issue of congestion with 70 per cent of inmates comprising addicts and small-time drug peddlers. They should be provided treatment as most of them are considered patients and don’t have to be subject to punishment in the form of a prison sentence.
“(By decriminalising minor drug offences) countries like Portugal, Sweden and the Netherlands have been able to ease overcrowding in their prisons as well as reduce the number of addicts returning to their old habits,” he told Bernama.
Malaysia currently has 39 prisons with a total of 74,459 inmates. The prisons, however, have the capacity to hold only 65,000 prisoners.
According to Dr Rusdi, Malaysia has already adopted the decriminalisation approach to address the issue of drug addiction but it is limited to opiate dependents via medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
Implemented 18 years ago, MAT has succeeded in checking opiate drug addiction, enabling former addicts to work and lead normal lives.
“However, most drug addicts, consume synthetic drugs containing 100 per cent chemical substances. Unlike opiate addicts, those addicted to synthetic drugs dare not seek treatment as they are afraid of ending up in jail.
“So, once the proposed law (Drug and Substance Abuse [Treatment and Rehabilitation] Act) is implemented, those addicted to synthetic drugs like syabu, ecstacy and pil kuda can come forward to seek treatment at rehabilitation centres run by AADK without any fear,” he said.
According to news reports, the government spends about RM500 million a year to incarcerate people for minor drug offences as well as house addicts in narcotic addiction rehabilitation centres (Puspen). These measures, however, have not done much to alleviate the nation’s drug dependency problem.
“Due to our ineffective rehabilitation, taxpayers’ money is being used to feed (drug) offenders in jail,” said Dr Rusdi.
To ensure the effectiveness of the proposed law, the AADK rehabilitation centres as well as Puspen need to strengthen their staff by appointing more doctors trained to treat drug addicts, he said.
“Presently at (each) AADK (rehabilitation centre), there is only one doctor and a medical assistant, which is insufficient. Once the new law is implemented, the centres’ drug treatment facilities must be improved,” Dr Rusdi added.
Besides easing prison congestion, the proposed Act can also check the transmission of infectious diseases among prisoners as well as reduce the incidence of stress and depression which can lead to suicide.
A study conducted by Universiti Malaya in 2014 at a prison in Malaysia found that the transmission rate of tuberculosis among its prisoners was ‘relatively high’.
According to Dr Rusdi, drug addiction is a chronic brain disease that is long-lasting and where the risks of relapse are high.
He said the Ministry of Health should also be seriously involved in efforts to treat drug addiction, pointing to the success of its methadone replacement therapy for opioid abusers.
The new Drug and Substance Abuse (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act will help to change the common perception that drug dependents are criminals.
“It (proposed law) will certainly have a big impact on addicts (because instead of being jailed, they will be sent for treatment). Society finds it hard to accept ex-addicts (after they are released from prison) so they think there’s no point in them turning over a new leaf as the people regard them as criminals. Actually, these ex-addicts need all the support they can get from their families and the community (to reintegrate into society),” explained Dr Rusdi, who is also a psychiatrist at the Universiti Malaya Specialists Centre.
Rise in Cases?
Lawyer Muhamad Razman Sahat, meanwhile, said the proposed Drug and Substance Abuse (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act ‘will be very helpful in the treatment and rehabilitation of first-time minor drug offenders’.
“But in the case of long-term and repeat offenders, I believe the provisions (for their treatment and rehabilitation) under the Act have to be refined and detailed further,” he said.
Currently, a repeat offender can be charged under Section 39C of the Dangerous Drugs Act and if found guilty, the accused faces a minimum seven-year or maximum 13-year jail term together with whipping.
“So, if the government intends to reduce congestion in prisons, this section (Section 39C) must also be taken into consideration,” Muhamad Razman told Bernama.
On whether he expects cases involving minor drug offences to rise after the new Act is implemented with the removal of imprisonment, Muhamad Razman said the fear that drug offenders may take things lightly does exist.
At present, the Dangerous Drugs Act also provides for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug offenders, specifically under Section 15 (1).
“This is why it is important that punishment meted out in the form of treatment be refined as much as possible to help bring down the number of repeat offenders,” he said.