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Malaysia's Government looks to decriminalise drug use in bid to stem disadvantage

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Original Link : https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-15/malaysias-government-looks-to-decriminalise-drug-use/11511492

By South-East Asia correspondent David Lipson

Updated 

A close up shot of a syringe prior to a drug user injecting.

The non-descript white van parked at the mosque entrance went mostly unnoticed.

Key points:

  • Decriminalisation of drug use signals a radical policy change
  • Drug use has led to epidemics of HIV, hepatitis C and TB
  • Traffickers of drugs will still face the death penalty

In conservative Malaysia, very few of the Muslim faithful on their way to afternoon prayers could ever have imagined its true purpose.

After a 40-year war on drugs that has seen two Australians hanged and countless thousands of drug users locked up, the van is a symbol of a dramatic shift in Malaysia's approach to narcotics.

It's a mobile methadone clinic, set up to provide support on the ground as the nation prepares to decriminalise drug use.

"Looking at drug addicts as suffering a form of a disease is crucial," said Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian Government MP at the forefront of the push for what many proponents simply call "decrim".

Nurul Izzah Anwar

"So how do you begin that movement? How do you begin to plant the seeds of awareness? It's through the mosque. It's through houses of worship."

Punishments for drug trafficking will remain harsh

In fact, the decriminalisation movement is already well underway with the support of cabinet and even the Prime Minister, according to Law Minister Liew Vui Keong, who has assumed a starkly progressive position by Malaysia's former standards.

"[Drug users] don't need imprisonment, they need medical treatment," he said.

He points to the nation's overcrowded prisons, where 56 per cent of inmates are locked up for drug related offences, the vast majority of whom will reoffend upon their release.

Malaysia\\'s Law Minister Liew Vui Keong stares at the camera in a close-up portrait.

"In our research we found out about 90 per cent of them will go back to prison because they are not finding it easy to get accepted by society," he said.

"They have not got jobs so they will have that tendency to repeat the offences."

Malaysia's penalties for drug possession are among the world's most severe. Possession of 200g of cannabis, 1kg of opium, 40g of cocaine or 15g of heroin or morphine can lead to a drug trafficking charge. A conviction carries the death penalty.

Four people sit on the ground in a closed up market in Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Liew stresses decriminalisation for drug users is not the same as legalisation, noting that those who traffic drugs "still need to be punished".

South-East Asia's 'war on drugs'

South-East Asia\\'s \\'war on drugs\\'
While thousands of drug convicts sit on death row in prisons across South-East Asia, the local trade in methamphetamine and other illicit drugs is flourishing.

On the streets of Kuala Lumpur after dark, not far from the sparkling shopping malls and towering office blocks, the ABC found numerous grim examples of drug use and recidivism.

Under the fluorescent lighting of an alley-way, as rats fought over piles of garbage, two men were cooking up a dose of heroin they'd bought for the equivalent of $3.

Unable to find a willing vein anywhere else, they proceeded to administer the drug directly into their necks.

One of the men had been in and out of prison 29 times.

"Even the police officers won't take him now, due to [the number of times he's been] in and out, in and out," said Yatie Jonet, our guide for the evening.

Photo shows Malaysian woman Yatie Jonet standing in a Kuala Lumpur alley.

A former user herself, Yatie said her two stints in prison only deepened her addiction.

"I know more about how to sell drugs. I got in contact with big dealers," she said.

"The moment you step out from that prison, 'Okay, I know where to go, I'll get my drugs.' That's how the punitive system structured me."

'A huge paradigm shift'

Perhaps the most pressing reason for change is public health, with the incidence of HIV among users peaking at 85 per cent during an epidemic in 2004-5.

"The war on drugs has not worked and has created many, many, many negative medical and social impacts," said Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Malaya.

A woman with glasses stands in a university hallway.

"From a health perspective, it has resulted in an epidemic of HIV and Hep C. For those who get incarcerated, we are continuing to see a large epidemic of TB infection."

Professor Adeeba, who also leads the University's Centre of Excellence for research in HIV/AIDS, realised something wasn't right in Malaysia while training as a medical student in Australia.

"In the years I was there I didn't see a single person who used drugs who had become infected with HIV," he said.

Myanmar's meth crisis

Myanmar\\'s meth crisis
An unlikely partnership between soldiers and poverty-stricken refugees to traffic drugs speaks to the breadth of Myanmar's drug crisis.

"When I returned to Malaysia all I saw were people who used drugs infected with HIV. That was when we started advocating for the harm reduction program."

But she's under no illusions about the challenge ahead. "It'll be a huge paradigm shift, definitely."

The ABC understands the Government's plans to introduce the proposed law changes into Parliament before Christmas have been delayed until next year.

"[Decriminalisation] still sits uncomfortably for a lot of people. With law enforcement, with religious leaders. With the community at large," said Professor Adeeba.

A man holds a cigarette lighter to his drugs prior to injecting.

Back at the mobile methadone clinic, Nurul Izzah Anwar shows the local Imam how the van will operate.

Her progressive approach to drugs was also moulded by first-hand experience, after visiting her father, the anointed Prime-Minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim, in prison.

"For years he was a political prisoner. I've seen how you have more than 50 per cent of convicts in prison who are there because of drug related crimes," she said.

"They are all poor. So you need to showcase an understanding. Harm reduction is the only way to address that."

Last Updated: 28/09/2019