Different direction for drug users
Are Malaysians prepared to view drug use as a social and public health problem rather than a criminal one?
GUESS how much Malaysia spends in a year to manage prisoners with a drug-related crime? A figure that is approaching half a billion ringgit.
And guess how many prisoners are behind bars for a drug-related offence? More than half of the country’s 60,000 prisoners.
These figure emerged in an anti-drug forum last month organised by the Malay daily Utusan Melayu and relevant agencies, namely the country’s anti-drug agency, the police, and the Prisons Department.
The cost doesn’t count the wider costs of policing the problem, such as the police raids and arrests, the protracted court process, and the largely futile attempts to control drug supply.
The worst part is that we’re jailing more and more people every year. We jail twice as many people now compared with the year 2000. Malaysia now has a relatively high incarceration rate, according to the World Prison Brief (prisonstudies.org).
Putting drug users in jail is costly. But more to the point, is it worth doing in the first place? Would it not be better for the police and courts to concentrate on jailing real criminals, like people who break into houses or snatch handbags?
The fact is, all the evidence indicates that jailing drug users does not have an effect on drug use.
Take a study published last month in the United States – a fitting example, since the US locks up more people per capita than any other country, to the cost of US$60bil (RM258bil) a year.
The study, from Pew Charitable Trusts, was interesting because it compared drug incarceration rates of different US states (which vary widely) with drug use and arrests. When researchers crunched the data, they found no evidence these factors affected one another.
“In other words, higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use,” the researchers noted in a letter to the White House, to the US President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
The letter also calls for more treatment services. Only about one in 10 Americans in need of substance use treatment in 2015 received it.
The United States is currently in the grip of a horrifying opioid epidemic. Opioids include heroin and synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine. The problem took off after a sharp rise in the use of prescription opioid painkillers in the last decade or so.
Opioids are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50 years. The singer Prince was killed by fentanyl, and the drug was found in the late Michael Jackson’s house.
According to a leading health news source, STAT news (statnews.com), opioids could kill close to half a million Americans over the next decade. That’s about as many Americans who died from HIV/AIDS in the first two decades before 2000. The drug war in America has been a disaster – a deadly one.
There is another way, which more and more countries are adopting: decriminalisation. This does NOT mean legalising drugs – drugs remain illegal and traffickers still face the weight of the law – but simply that people caught with a small amount of drugs do not end up in jail.
It’s not a radical idea. In fact, some 25 countries worldwide have already adopted laws, policies, or other measures to decriminalise drug use, having realised that it’s cheaper and more effective to treat rather than jail people.
At the end of last month, the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation issued a call for drugs to be decriminalised, urging “reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes”.
This followed a similar call by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, in a statement to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse on June 26.
Guterres said: “I know from personal experience how an approach based on prevention and treatment can yield positive results.”
Indeed he knows. When he was prime minister of Portugal, he launched the country’s drug decriminalisation programme. Anyone caught with a less than a 10-day supply of drugs has to meet a “dissuasion panel” of legal, social, and psychological experts. Repeat offenders may be prescribed treatment such as methadone, which relieves withdrawal symptoms.
The programme got the heroin epidemic under control and led to a dramatic drop in HIV infections and drug fatalities (now one of the lowest in Europe). And, contrary to naysayers, drug use among the young also dropped. Today, the programme is considered a model.
We already have some drug treatment programmes with impressive results, such as the voluntary Cure and Care Clinics. So why don’t we invest more in what works? Just imagine if we spent that half a billion on treatment rather than keeping people in jail.
That, though, would require a sharp shift in the way we view drugs. Are Malaysians prepared to view drug use as a social and public health problem rather than a criminal one? That may be for you, the public, to answer.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.
Would it not be better for the police and courts to concentrate on jailing real criminals?