By Preeti Jha, The Diplomat
Scientific reason broke through the dominant political rhetoric on drugs in Southeast Asia last month. Instead of the “war on drugs” narrative favored by the region’s populists, Malaysia’s government said it was time to put “science and public health before punishment and incarceration” as it proposed decriminalizing personal drug use.
The plan to remove criminal penalties for the possession and use of drugs in small quantities (as opposed to those involved in drug trafficking) is a bold move in a country that currently has some of the world’s most punitive drug laws.
“Malaysia is about to embark on a significant game-changer policy,” Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said in a statement. “An addict shall be treated as a patient (not as a criminal), whose addiction is a disease we will like to cure.”
That the plan was jointly put forward by the health minister and the home affairs minister sent a powerful message of the government’s intent, said Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
“For decades people who use drugs, whether recreationally or those who have developed an addiction, have been placed within the criminal justice system,” said Kamarulzaman, known for pioneering a harm reduction program among injecting drug users during Malaysia’s HIV epidemic in the 2000s. It’s a “paradigm shift,” she says, to treat rather than punish addiction.