DEPUTY Home Minister Datuk Mohd Azis Jamman said recently that the Prisons Department is carrying out a thorough research to consider decriminalising drug addiction.
This significant step demonstrates the government’s commitment to put precedence on evidence-based and data-driven public policy over mere punishment and incarceration, despite potential backlash from the public and experts.
The government has been trying to eradicate drug issues from our society for almost 67 years. The incarceration approach in our drug policy is suppressive in nature and has incurred a lot of money and wrecked innocent lives.
Breakdown of families and neighbourhoods, child abuse, rising incarceration rate and overcrowded prisons are some of the negative consequences.
Notably, however, these suppressive measures have not reduced drug use, but rather have congested our criminal justice system with non-violent offenders.
Over the past 15 years, researchers and policymakers across several countries have been working together to come up with alternative measures that are both pragmatic and effective to address the drug addiction problem.
Broadly speaking, these measures can be classified into three categories: depenalisation, diversion and decriminalisation.
Depenalisation can be defined as a reduction of the practice of existing penalties or other means of enforcement.
The proposed decriminalisation effort by our government, of which possession of drugs for personal use may no longer be treated as a crime, will give way to more focus on diversion measures.
Diversion measures are strategies or legislation that seek to lead people away from criminal sanctions but focus on rehabilitation, corrective education, therapeutic and social services.
These measures, coupled with continuous support, supervision and protection extended to drug addicts, will go a long way to effectively help them rise against their addiction and become productive members of society.
However, this proposed new initiative will inevitably attract adverse reactions, especially from the public. To proactively address this, the research by the Prisons Department into the proposal should leverage on the extensive experience by other countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Poland and the United States where the alternative measures mentioned have produced some positive results. There has also been a lack of research that would indicate that decriminalisation of drug use will increase drug usage.
Another side benefit of decriminalising drug usage is that the time and energy of our police force and judicial system will be better utilised and will help to reduce the backlog of criminal cases.
Nonetheless, should the government decide to pursue this initiative, it must be cognisant of multiple issues that could can hamper the effective implementation of this initiative to produce the desired results.
Corruption in law enforcement, driving under the influence, drug overdose and the unintended harm to the public inflicted by drug addicts need to be addressed by the government.
Moreover, the government needs to make sure that the existing prevention and intervention measures are strengthened and implemented effectively at every level to reduce the number of drug abuse cases and the recidivism rate among drug abusers, as well as to guide the drug addicts towards a better future.
Otherwise, without strong implementation of the prevention and intervention measures, the decriminalisation of drug addicts and addiction must wait, lest the desired outcome not be achieved.
Research analyst, Institute for Research and Development of Policy, Kuala Lumpur