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Malaysia’s changing stance on drugs: breaking away from punitive policy in Southeast Asia

Malaysia has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to drugs but on 27 June 2019, Minister of Health, Dzulkefly Ahmad announced legislation to decriminalise and remove penalties for the small scale possession of illegal drugs for personal use. 

Dzulkefly described the change in law as a “critical next step toward achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration”, reports Al Jazeera

While a far cry from legalisation, this marks a significant departure from draconian drug laws implemented since the nation’s independence in 1957 which includes mandatory sentencing for trafficking. In 2011, an audit of the criminal justice system in Malaysia reported that almost 40 per cent of Malaysia’s prison population was convicted on charges of drug-related offences. 

Sitting at the edge of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle of heroin and methamphetamine production: Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Malaysia finds itself at the foot of the illicit drug trade. Underpinned by traditional conservative values, with many laws closely tied to the nation’s official religion, Islam, along with a geographical vulnerability and a high volume of narcotics within its borders, Malaysia has long imposed restrictive drug laws.

A zero-tolerance approach to drugs is common in the region. Neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar and Laos carry the death penalty for certain categories of drug offences. Each member state of the regional body ASEAN, has committed to make the region “drug free” by 2020.

Despite extremely punitive laws, harm reduction is not entirely unfamiliar in Southeast Asia. Malaysia introduced a harm reduction programme to combat HIV in 2005, while Thailand reduced its maximum sentencing for drug possession from 15 years to 10 years in 2017. Malaysia’s decision to fully decriminalise drug use represents a surprising departure from regional attitudes. 

Yet the relaxing of drug laws is yet to sweep across all of Southeast Asia. As reported in Talking Drugs, the Philippines has embarked on a bloody drug war since the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Duterte has received international condemnation for multiple breaches of human rights and extrajudicial killings, which are believed to number the thousands in an attempt to dispel usage. One recent tragedy is the death of three year old Myka Ulpina, shot by a stray bullet by the Filipino police during a raid to her family home. Meanwhile, Singapore, a country with one the world’s strictest drugs laws, has shown no signs of changing just yet. New laws have made it illegal to provide information to another person on how to consume, produce, or sell drugs.

Internationally, the announcement echoes the shift to an increasingly flexible approach to drug usage, with countries such as Canada opting to legalise cannabis in 2018, leading to the establishment of a booming and profitable industry. The evidence in support of harm reduction and decriminalisation is mounting. Portugal’s move to decriminalise all drugs in 2001 has improved public health and social outcomes. New HIV infections were halved over 10 years in Portugal, falling from 2167 in 2007 to 1030 in 2016 a joint WHO–European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) report found. While considered a radical move at the time, Portugal is now often praised as a success story with much of the world now taking notice. 

The call to decriminalise is clear. However, the Malaysian government’s decision to backtrack on the removal of the death penalty in March means that the world waits in anticipation to see what actions the government will take, and when, to make decriminalisation a reality in Malaysia. 

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