FEBRUARY 19 — In June 2019, Minister of Health Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad announced that the government will be decriminalising personal drug use. For experts and civil society groups familiar with drug addiction issues, the announcement was greeted as long-awaited progress.

For the general public though, there’s been confusion and concern.

Case in point: At a recent international conference on drug policy reform at University Malaya, Dr Dzulkefly devoted considerable time in his keynote speech discussing the differences between “legalising” and “decriminalising.”

Yet during the Q&A session, members of the audience, including journalists, still seemed unclear about what decriminalisation meant: Would dangerous drugs be legalised? Would decriminalisation make drug use socially acceptable?

Understandably, the term “decriminalisation” is complex, and as a society, we have been conditioned to fear and denounce drug users. Broadly speaking, academics have established that Malaysians’ perception of drug users is conservative and punitive.

In 1983, then-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared a war on drugs, and aggressive measures were introduced, making drug possession and trafficking punishable with death.

Currently, those caught with small amounts such as up to 50 grammes of cannabis (a “soft drug”) or 5 grammes of heroin (a “hard drug”) could be imprisoned and caned, placing them within the same sentencing category as criminals who commit violent crimes such as organised crime and rape.

Nearly 40 years later, this approach has produced several unintended but serious consequences such as overcrowded prisons, and high relapse rates. We are also still observing a strong focus on punishment rather than prevention and treatment.

At the launch of the National Anti-Drug Month 2020 recently, current Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad acknowledged that there was space to review current drug laws, as some evidence suggests they have been ineffective.

These are the issues that the government wants to address by “decriminalising”: Sending non-violent drug users for effective rehabilitation rather than a minimum of two years’ imprisonment under current laws. Numerous studies have shown that imprisonment is ineffective, and addicts tend to relapse within as quickly as a month.

Evidence also indicates that those who end up in prison for drug possession or usage are usually of lower income or education, who can’t afford a good lawyer or who are not savvy enough to find a way out.

Need to reframe, but still the same

The proposed drug decriminalisation reform policy wants to reframe drug abuse and addiction as a disease that needs to be treated rather than a crime that needs to be punished. However, we have yet to see this reframing reflected in news and media stories.

The Centre recently completed a media analysis study where we evaluated over 1000 drug-related news and feature articles across major Malaysian newspapers in English and Bahasa Malaysia. We found that in the two months prior and following the announcement, there was no change in narrative.

Two-thirds of media coverage on drugs both before and after the announcement remained crime-focused. Less than 10 per cent consisted of drug policy discussions, mostly on border control and anti-trafficking measures. Discussions on drug addiction as a condition to be treated were largely absent.

While the English-language newspapers were more neutral of their depiction of drug users, Malay-language papers were less forgiving. Drug users are framed as irredeemable criminals or a scourge to society.

“Masuk jel pun tak insaf” and “Lelaki mengamuk ibu tak beri wang beli dadah” are among the many headlines depicting drug use and abuse (rather than drug trafficking) as a social menace that requires a spell behind bars, or worse.

We also found similar patterns within our recent study (soon to be published) on attitudes towards the death penalty in Malaysia, where in certain demographics, a higher percentage of respondents called for the mandatory death penalty in fairly tame drug transporting scenarios compared to murder and grievous harm scenarios.

Clearly, better reframing and communication is needed.

Better framing, better words

A policy that does not get public support, no matter how well-intentioned, has already lost the battle. Even direct and concise campaigns like banning smoking in public spaces or #Undi18 took time to gather public acceptance.

A policy like drug decriminalisation, which goes against ingrained public biases, has to overcome an even greater hurdle.

Apart from more education about the nature of drug addiction, we argue that the word “decriminalisation” itself is problematic. First, it can’t be immediately understood — the term needs to be further explained.

Second, it is not easy to grasp in Bahasa (“dekriminalisasi,” anyone?).

Third, it actually reinforces and reminds us of the long-held perception that all drug users are criminals, to be feared and kept apart from society.

Portugal’s drug reform campaign is an example of what better drug policy communications look like. Drug addiction there has been framed as “everyone’s problem,” rather than an issue populated by a criminal underclass. The derogatory term, drogados, (junkies) eventually shifted to “drugs users” or “addiction patients.”

The same strategy has been seen to work for HIV/AIDS awareness in the US, where the problem was also universalised. Humanising those with the disease enabled the public to have empathy as well as encouraging those affected to seek help.

Changing the narrative resulted in greater resources for treatment research and the dramatic decline of new AIDS/HIV cases and deaths by the end of the 1990s, an amazing achievement.

So what might be an effective reframing approach for Malaysia? Just a humble suggestion: How about Pulih, bukan Penjara or Heal, not Harm? It emphasises a treatment-based approach, removing it from crime-related connotations. It also reminds us that addicts are human beings deserving of treatment.

Whatever specific framing and words the government finally chooses to adopt, we hope to see a concerted change in tack, and soon. Because despite the measures and punishments in place, the number of drug use cases continue to remain at alarming levels.

More Malaysian families know and care for drug-dependent family members than we as a society care to admit. It is high time that we have a more effective policy, and language, to deal with it.

* Aziff Azuddin and Nelleita Omar are researchers at think tank, The Centre

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