KUALA LUMPUR, June 23 — National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) chief Datuk Seri Zulkifli Abdullah on Friday said forced-rehabilitation for those caught in raids remains effective in battling drug addiction.
Zulkifli’s assertion comes amid growing calls for the government to decriminalise substance dependency, reform its drug laws and put in place harm reduction programmes which experts say have shown more success in preventing relapse or repeat offences.
“I support the idea that (addiction) is a health issue... but we still have to make arrests because when the public complains, we need to act,” the AADK director general told Malay Mail at a press conference on Friday.
“But what we are doing is to save them: we have to arrest them to save them.”
Rights groups and substance abuse experts claim the AADK alone is ill-equipped to deal with a complex problem like drug addiction, which requires medical, psychological and specialised knowledge in addiction medicine.
They said the majority of publicly-funded rehabilitation centres lack this knowledge, and the current approach often excludes root causes of drug abuse like poverty, lack of education or poor mental health.
Zulkifli did not comment on this but pointed the AADK does carry out social-psychological support programmes. However, these programmes are accessible only to addicts who voluntarily check into its rehabilitation centres.
“We do have psycho-support and community programmes,” Zulkifli told Malay Mail.
“They are carried out at all our rehab centres and we have about 160 of them and those who check in voluntarily... we help them get back on their feet so they can re-enter community.”
A Cabinet committee on drug law reform could soon offer clemency to users or addicts who sign themselves up for rehabilitation, which the authorities like the AADK said is part of efforts to remove addiction stigma.
But it remains unclear if the leniency would be extended to those who have been arrested.
Zulkifli added that there are currently “just” about 6,000 people in the rehabilitation centres. He did not state how many were arrested or had admitted themselves voluntarily.
The former are still considered criminals and sent to the Serenti Detention Centre, where they undergo a separate rehabilitation programme. Rights groups claim the detention centre resembles prison and does not aid recovery.
Experts such as Universiti Malaya’s Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman said the authorities often fail to make the distinction between addicts, recreational or problematic users and pushers because existing drug laws pigeonhole them all as criminals.
Dr. Adeeba is the dean of UM’s medicine faculty and one of the Centre of Excellence for Research in Aids (Ceria) directors, the successful group that operated the first methadone replacement from a mosque.
In the decades since the government enforced its strict anti-narcotic laws, there have been thousands of cases in which recreational users or addicts caught with a certain amount of illicit drugs were charged under trafficking or possession laws.
As a result, “minor-drug offenders” make up over half the nation’s prison population or the equivalent of close to nearly 50,000 inmates, causing cell overcrowding.
Lawmakers such as Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar had described the situation as a crisis, saying the government urgently needed to revamp prison laws.
These offenders also face economic hurdles out of prison because they carry a permanent criminal record, which prevents them from securing employment.
Isolated and without support and financial independence, this usually leads them to abuse drugs again.
In 2018 as many as 7,482 drug-related cases were found to be repeat offences while 18,440 new cases were registered in the same year, a figure experts called “staggering.”
Zulkifli did not state if he felt this to be a problem, but insisted that the AADK had accomplished most of its objectives.
He then expressed confidence that the proposed clemency for voluntary admission into public rehab would draw more addicts out to seek help.
“I don’t want to go as far as saying decriminalising,” he said.
“The authorities must act if the public complain there are addicts in their community, and when we arrest them and put them (in detention centres) it’s for the better.”