PARLIAMENT is about to repeal laws affecting the supply of controlled medicines and medicines.
Pharmacists and other players in the healthcare industry are following the development on how to relate the new provisions in the laws to their livelihoods.
It was reported that existing laws, including the Poisons Act 1952, will be repealed once the Pharmacy Act 2012 comes into effect.
I want to direct the attention of readers to the poisons laws because there are many provisions in the laws that are also related to the aspects of who are considered qualified to deal with poisonous items. The strengthening of the pharmacy legislation is supposed to protect the public from poison misadventures and to balance against legitimate commercial interests.
The new bill should not be bulldozed through Parliament without rationalisation.
Members of parliament will likely get the bill at a short notice. This should not be so. There must be time for debate and discussion.
How many pharmacists and other healthcare professionals, let alone the public, have knowledge about the origin of the laws?
The poison laws, just like many other Malaysian laws, originated from Great Britain, where the laws were prepared in the background of important events, especially during the first half of the 19th century.
Britons remember the mid-19th century as the era of the poisoning epidemic. Newspapers wrote about how easy it was to buy poison from pharmacies or doctors. If the poison laws had been enforced in 1849, for instance, many lives could have been saved from the hands of murderers, such as William Palmer.
Some people at that time said the rate of poisoning could be proportional to the quantity of poisons sold to the public.
In 1852, the first poisons law was introduced to the British Parliament through the initiative of Jacob Bell. Between this time and 1933, when the Pharmacy and Poisons Act was passed, many of these laws were extended to the British colonies.
However, these laws remained in the colonies even after the British had repealed the same laws with the passing of Medicines Act 1968.
The British said it was not the dead letters of the poison laws that saved the public from being poisoned, but the determination of healthcare professionals to observe and apply the laws strictly, for personal as well as for industrial usage, under the guidance of their professional movements.
One can read this sentiment in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, where one chemist after another, summoned by the court, expresses his reluctance to serve jury duty by saying: "There will be a murder if I am not in my store to make sure the purchasers of poisons are known to me."
That is why the Malaysian Poisons Act 1952 states that no poison can be sold except to persons known to the pharmacist and the poison regulations require the name of the purchaser, who must not be below 18, to register his name and address in the Poison Book.
In the United Kingdom, the negligence of pharmacists and doctors to record the sale of poisons in the poison book was said to have been the reason for poisoning cases before and after the early enforcement of the poison laws.
In Malaysia, there is the famous curry murder trial where a man was killed by strangulation after a hearty meal in Bangi.
Reports stated that the curry he had was laced with pills to put him to sleep. The post-mortem report, however, showed there were no traces of sleeping pills or drugs in the stomach.
If Dr Alfred Swine Taylor, the expert witness in the 1856 Palmer poison case, were still alive, he would probably tell us to look for the traces of poison in the blood and other organs.
In Malaysia, people are not in the habit of demanding for a post-mortem on bodies of loved ones.
Pharmacists should ask questions whenever anyone wants to buy poisons.
The public has the right to know to what extent an important law like the Poisons Act can be considered obsolete or barbarous enough to be replaced by the new Pharmacy Act.
For, after more than 50 years of the enforcement of poisons laws, the public is not protected from poisoning through the consumption of health and food supplements adulterated with poisons.
Does the Health Ministry feel the time is right to repeal the poison laws when the public still feels it is safe enough to consume foods, traditional medicines and cosmetic products that contain poison?