As part of a series of engagements with South-East Asian governments and civil society over the last few weeks, IDPC staff were in Kuala Lumpur on 1st and 2nd October to take forward our country work in Malaysia under the International HIV/AIDS Alliance “Community Action on Harm Reduction” programme. Gloria Lai (IDPC's Senior Policy Officer) and myself had a packed itinerary of meetings, organised with our main partners in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC). We were ably supported by Nuno Capaz, the head of the Lisbon “dissuasion commission” in Lisbon, Portugal, who came to describe the Portuguese decriminalisation model. Our main focus was a symposium on diverting drug offenders from mandatory imprisonment, into health and social services, but we also had meetings with the de facto Minister of Law, Police Chiefs, civil society representatives, and legal advisors to the Attorney General.

The positive part of this blog post is that the recent gains in harm reduction policy support and programming, and the transfer of clients from compulsory treatment into voluntary and effective treatment services (primarily the “Cure and Care” clinics) are alive and well – and are showing signs of being an uncontroversial and accepted part of the Malaysian approach to drug use. Malaysian authorities – that is, the Ministry of Health and the National Anti-Drugs Agency (NADA) – have, in association with MAC, made great progress over recent years in scaling up the provision of NSP, OST, and community-based treatment across Malaysia. This is particularly welcome, as these services have the support of political and religious leaders in the country, despite some neighbouring governments (notably Thailand) still favouring repressive and punitive approaches to people who use drugs.

The less positive aspect of our visit was the lack of progress on changing laws that still criminalise drug use and the processes by which Malaysian police and prosecutors deal with arrested people who use drugs. The dominant view of people who use drugs amongst senior officials and (reportedly) the general public, is that they are primarily responsible for allegedly widespread street crime such as bag-snatching by motorbike riders, therefore deserve tough punishment. The current process faced by people who use drugs after arrest is a mandatory 14-day remand in custody while a bizarre assessment process (involving urine testing and an obscure medical assessment) is carried out to determine whether the individual will be considered an “abuser” or “drug addict”. Court appearances are often severely delayed, during which period the arrested individual stays in prison. Sentences include up to two years in a rehabilitation treatment centre or under a supervision order in the community (for more information see the IDPC briefing paper on drug policy issues in Malaysia).

When we visited Malaysia last year, we met with officials who were open to discussing an agenda for reform that would allow more diversion of minor drug-related cases from criminal justice processes, but during our visit this year little progress has been made to advance such reforms. There are progressive managers in NADA and the Narcotics Police, but our sense from this trip was that neither agency was willing or able to push forward a reform agenda. But there were two potential opportunities: a committee of legal experts reviewing the efficiency of the 14-day remand process, which may recommend the adoption of more humane and efficient processes for people caught with the possession of drugs, and; a positive meeting with the de facto Minister of Law, who was clearly well informed on the issue of diversion and decriminalisation (even seemed to have read the IDPC Drug Policy Guide), and promised to seriously consider and act on the recommendations of the committee of legal experts. However, overall, whether or not Malaysia represents progress in evidence-based policy making on drug issues is difficult to say.

Finally, we were able to secure a slot for Nuno Capaz to present the Portuguese model to the second Regional Consultation on Compulsory Centres for Drug Users organised by the UNODC, UNAIDS and ESCAP, and co-hosted by NADA, taking place in Kuala Lumpur at the same time as our visit. His presentation gave a useful insight into a successful model for decriminalisation and voluntary drug treatment, in the context of a meeting where the dominant tone was reportedly supportive of the phasing out of these centres – once again, of course, with the exception of Thailand.      

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