300,000 drug addicts: Time to replace the Abstinence model with the Harm Reduction approach in the War Against Drug Abuse in Malaysia

Media Statement
by Ronnie Liu Tian Khiew

(Petaling Jaya,  Monday): Professor Dr Adeeba Kamaruzaman, Head of Infectious Disease Department of University of Malaya and the acting president of Malaysia Aids Council advocates for the Harm Reduction approach to tackle the increasingly alarming situation of drug abuse and the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country in the live Debat Perdana over RTM1 on Sunday, Mar 6, 2005.

I have given my support to her as a fellow panelist largely because the Harm Reduction module has been proven successful in countries like Australia and Europe in curbing drug abuse as well as checking the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases such as Hepatitis B and C.

Malaysia is now paying a very high price for failing to arrest the drug abuse situation in the country. The number of drug addicts has gone up to no less than 1 million by 2004, of which 300,000 addicts have been detected and documented. 65% of the detected cases were said to be injection dependants. These severe drug addicts spend about RM800 to RM1, 500 a month to feed his or her habit, contributing to the sum of RM2 billion a year! According to ADK (National Drug Agency), an average of 55 new cases was detected everyday! Malaysia currently has more than 70,000 cases of HIV/AIDS, as compared to 17,000 cases in Australia, which has a same population as Malaysia.

The relapse cases have been extremely high among former drug addicts who are discharged from various government rehab centers. Activists who have worked with drug addicts for many years puts the relapse figure at over 80%! This is largely due to a number of factors, such as the lack of counseling and assistance (such as job finding) from government agencies after their discharge from various Serenti rehab centers; the stigma as a former drug addict; and the cold shoulder from family members and friends.

Society in general has to change its attitude towards drug addicts. Former addicts should be given the chance to go back to society to lead a normal and dignified life. They must be respected as human beings and must not be seen as public nuisances (sampah masyarakat).

The Abstinence approach taken by the Malaysian government has failed miserably and the time has come to shift to the Harm Reduction module advocated by NGOs and activists both local and abroad.

Let us not run away from the reality of the situation. We should try to control the situation before we can talk about eradicating the problem. Malaysia will not be free from dangerous drugs by 2015 unless the Government is ready to revamp its strategy and approach.

If one finds it difficult to get a smoker to give up his or her habit, one can imagine how hard it is to get a drug addict to quit. The Harm Reduction approach takes a soft and effective stand to treating drug addicts -- replacement drugs like Methadone (a drug which lessens the withdrawal symptoms minus the "high" effects) have proven to be very effective in many countries. The Needle Exchange programme (exchanging new needles with old ones from the addicts in order to prevent needle-sharing among drug users) is being privately run by certain groups, with the intention of curbing the spread of infectious diseases. The Halfway Homes/Drop-In Centres which are open to drug addicts and former drug addicts were also proven more effective than the conventional institutionalized rehabilitation centres. Drug addicts need not quit their jobs to go through detoxification exercise as in the case of rehab centres.

The government has to change its policies in tune with new developments and new problems, and it must move with the times. Legislators must have the political determination to amend its various acts dealing with drug abuse and drug trafficking to enable the legalization of needle exchange, alternative drug treatments and other practices under the Harm Reduction module.

The statistics from ADK has clearly shown that Malaysian kids are starting to use dangerous drugs from as early as 13 to 15. This is another good reason why the government should consider dropping the National Service programme for 18-year-olds which requires an annual budget of RM500 million. The Government should get its priorities right and channel the RM500 million to educate and train our young children beginning from primary schools.

The current anti-drugs campaign being promoted by ADK and Pemadam in schools are by and large weak and inadequate. Anti-dadah poster drawing contests once a year in some selected secondary schools are not enough to drive home the "Say No To Dadah" message. They need to rethink and overhaul its entire strategy and approach to make the programmes really effective.

It's a known fact that drugs are easily available in Malaysia. As a result, it's very easy for young Malaysians to become drug users, and even easier for repeat drug addicts to get their supply. Corruption is undeniably the main reason for the lack of enforcement in the country. Malaysia can have the most stringent laws governing drug abuse and drug trafficking in the world; but many drug pushers are not afraid because they know very well that money can be used to get them out of trouble. We have to fight corruption first before we can talk about fighting drug abuse and trafficking in this country.

We believe a healthy and clean living environment for our children is a pre-requisite in fighting drug abuse. As the occurrence of drug abuse is incredibly high among the less educated and those who come from lower-income families, the government must tackle the problem of low-cost flat units which are ridiculously small and do not provide any privacy to its occupants. A lot of kids would rather lepak outdoors than go home to a small, crowded home. If the Singaporean government can build spacious apartments for their citizens despite the scarcity of land, why can't Malaysian government? Where's the spirit of Malaysia Boleh?

The government should also build more public swimming pools, badminton halls, football fields, futsal centres, public libraries and Internet centres for our young children in urban and rural areas, instead of leaving the kids nowhere to go but to loiter in shopping malls or other unhealthy places. The government should help create a healthy living environment to encourage a Lepak Positif culture and lifestyle as part of its effort in fighting drug abuse.

The Government must renew its spirit in fighting the drug problem. And society in general must be aware of the serious problem of drug abuse and change its attitude towards drug users. We must put in more concerted efforts to prevent drug abuse and the spread of HIV and other drug addict-related diseases. Otherwise, we will be still talking about how to deal with dangerous drugs 50 years from now (as claimed by the host of Debat Perdana, Datuk Johan Jaffar).


* Ronnie Liu Tian Khiew, DAP International Secretary and NGO bureau chief