Rethinking drug policy: Why ‘Just Say No Campaign’ is failing? — Samantha Chong

FEBRUARY 13 — I attended an Anti-drug campaign during high school.

“Don’t ever do drugs or your life will be ruined!” we were reminded again and again.

There was big screen in the hall. You could hear a pin drop when they first played the video. It was about a man who was flogged 24 times for committing a crime.

For many of us, it was the first time we saw a naked buttocks of a grownup man. Pieces of flesh were ripped from his body. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

But did the scare tactic work?

When the video ended, some of my schoolmates were traumatised. But some found it amusing, they cheered and clapped their hands.

Despite the intended effect, our school wasn’t drug free that year.

Drug prevention programme and sudden urine test in school

The National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK) often brings different types of drugs to exhibit it in school. The purpose? To show students how harmful drugs could be.

Last year, the Director General of AADK told Harian Metro that two million students were at risk of drug use. Urine testing was done in school as an early step to stop students from using drugs.

I am not saying we should turn a blind eye to children who use drugs. But the main reasons why kids use drugs are curiosity, broken family, trauma from abuse, mental illness, stress, boredom, and peer pressure. Will sudden drug test and harsh punitive action prevent all these?

True story on random urine testing

“When I was in Form 4, nine of my friends smoked “rokok daun” in the school bus. The next day, AADK did urine test in school. All of them were found positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and jailed for weeks. After their release, the head master caned all of them publicly. Some boys were suspended, some expelled. Majority ended up living a problematic life. But the one that did not attend school that fateful day was able to escape and is now a doctor.”

This story reminds me of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who had admitted drug use in their younger days. Would they have been US Presidents if they had been caught?

The Dangerous Drugs Act which criminalises drug use, was enacted in 1952 when addiction was considered as a security threat and not a medical condition. The law does not differentiate people who use drug experimentally, recreationally, self-medication or chronic use. Instead, it only provides a one size fit it all solutions. The punishment is either a fine, jail sentence or both. In any case, the criminal records will be a hurdle for pursuing higher education and deter future proper employment.

Are students smart enough to tell drugs are bad?

Ahmad scored 7A in SPM. His father and sister were both in prison for minor drug offences. Feeling lonely and depressed, he mingled with the wrong crowd and became addicted to drugs. Does war on drugs break the cycle of addiction, or has it broken Ahmad’s family, making him vulnerable to drug addiction?

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterised by compulsive drug seeking. Negative emotions, such as sadness, grief and shame if left unaddressed will create tremendous potential for a relapse. Without evidence-based treatment and interventions, it is highly unlikely for Ahmad to break the cycle of addiction in prison.

The story of Rahul

I met Rahul and his family when I was a rookie deputy public prosecutor in children’s court. Rahul was this mischievous boy who frequently appeared in courts for drug use and other petty crimes.

“Please send him to prison, I don’t know how to deal with him anymore,” said Rahul’s father.

What he didn’t understand is prison is not the solution. You might even expect Rahul to learn something and end his addiction while in prison. But the unpopular truth is prison officers are not trained to handle drug addiction. Furthermore, overcrowding in prison can fan the spread of diseases. A research conducted revealed high prevalence of latent TB among prisoners (88.8%) and prison staffs (81%) in Kajang Prison. Instead of getting the needful intervention, Rahul was exposed to infectious diseases and other hardcore criminals.

Last time we met, Rahul was in high court, facing a drug trafficking charge.

Why can’t we just admit the “Just Say No tactic” is failing?

Most drug education programmes are aimed solely at preventing drug use. After instructions to abstain, the lesson ends. Abstinence is treated as the sole measure of success. Although the abstinence-only mandate is well-intended, this approach is clearly not enough. It is unrealistic to believe that at a time in their lives when they are most prone to risk-taking, teenagers — will completely refrain from trying alcohol, and/or other drugs. If we really want to minimise drug problems among young people, we need a ‘fall back’ strategy that includes comprehensive education and puts the safety, welfare and future of our children to the forefront. Drug prevention programme should focus on enhancing decision-making ability for healthier lifestyle while providing active social support.

Perhaps it is wise to look at Iceland drug prevention model which was designed around the idea of giving kids better things to do. Technology and high level of social media use have changed the way children interact with others. What worked before might not work now, and definitely won’t always work. With the influx of information where drugs can be delivered from door to door, it is high time for Malaysia to embrace a comprehensive drug policy which is evidence-based encompassing prevention, supply reduction, treatment and harm reduction while working closely with the affected communities.

*Samantha Chong is a former deputy public prosecutor and drug policy reform advocate.

(Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.