New Bill Empowers AADK To Arrest, Treat, Rehabilitate Drug Users

The Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Bill 2024 authorises AADK officers to apprehend, treat, and rehabilitate “drug dependants or misusers”. Experts oppose mandatory rehab and question whether AADK can diagnose drug dependency.

KUALA LUMPUR, July 3 — The government has introduced a drug amendment bill that proposes granting more power to the National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK), allowing AADK officers to apprehend, treat, and rehabilitate persons who are drug dependent or misusers.

The Drug Dependants (Treatment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Bill 2024 – tabled for its first reading in the Dewan Rakyat by Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail yesterday – proposes 29 amendments. These changes are intended to address prison overcrowding by focusing on minor drug offenders.

Malaysia has 39 prisons, with a capacity for 65,000 inmates. In March, Saifuddin said the country’s prisons housed a total of 74,459 inmates.

The drug amendment bill, widely considered as a positive step away from the country’s draconian anti-drug laws, shifts the focus from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation for drug dependents.

However, drug policy experts worry about making rehabilitation mandatory for all, as only a small percentage of drug users – about 10 to 20 per cent – become dependent.

Concerns also exist regarding whether current AADK rehabilitation centres can handle the influx, given they can only accommodate 8,600 people annually compared to 150,000 yearly arrests involving individuals who are commonly caught for minor drug possession and self-administration offences under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1952.

The drug amendment bill differentiates between “drug or substance dependants” and “drug or substance misusers”.

Amendments to Section 2 defines a “drug or substance dependant” as “a person who through the use of any dangerous drug or substance indicates the characteristics of dependency on the dangerous drug or substance that affects self-control which is verified by tests.”

A “drug or substance misuser” refers to “a person who consumes dangerous drug or substance into the body for non-medical purposes or without a lawful prescription by a government medical officer or registered medical practitioner which is verified by tests.”

Section 6 will be amended to stipulate that drug dependants may face up to two years in rehabilitation centres or community programmes, with penalties for non-compliance, including fines, community service, or imprisonment. Misusers could face up to two years in community rehabilitation or six months in a centre, with extensions for repeated offences.

For minor offenders, amendments to Section 9 stipulate that if a rehabilitation officer decides a minor should undergo treatment and rehabilitation at a rehabilitation centre, service centre, private rehabilitation centre, or in the community, the parent or guardian must attend the treatment and rehabilitation programme with the minor if required by the rehabilitation officer.

Any parent or guardian of a minor who is a drug or substance dependent or misuser, and who fails to comply with the conditions imposed, commits an offence and, upon conviction, is liable to a fine not exceeding RM5,000.

The amendment bill plans to introduce Section 27A, allowing the minister to appoint rehabilitation officers as needed for the apprehension, treatment, and rehabilitation of drug or substance dependents and misusers.

While the role of rehabilitation officers is expanded, the amendment bill still requires that tests to certify someone as drug or substance dependent be conducted by a government medical officer or registered medical practitioner before the individual is presented before a magistrate.

It remains unclear if the expanded role of AADK rehabilitation officers will include conducting assessments for individuals seeking voluntary drug treatment, a role previously reserved for medical officers under the Health Ministry (MOH).

Saifuddin previously stated that if the amendments are approved, they will “streamline the efforts of the AADK to rehabilitate addicts without bureaucratic hurdles,” making the process more effective.

Untrained AADK Officers May Misdiagnose Drug Dependency

To determine if a person has a drug dependency or drug use disorder, medical observation needs to be conducted over a period of time, as a urine drug test alone is not sufficient, experts say.

Hafizi Harun, a certified counsellor and president of Pengasih, said granting AADK the authority to diagnose and certify drug use disorders and provide treatment raises big concerns, as diagnosis of mental health issues needs to be done by clinical psychologists or psychiatrists who have comprehensive training.

“They (clinical psychologists or psychiatrists) go through postgraduate, Master’s, and above-level studies to be competent in assigning diagnosis. Counsellors might do assessments, but they cannot assign diagnoses in Malaysia.

“Furthermore, addiction therapists and addiction psychiatrists are specialists. They have additional training focused on addiction, which many general mental health professionals lack. This specialised knowledge is important because managing substance use disorders and drug addiction is complex and requires understanding the nuances of these conditions.

“If untrained AADK officers are allowed to diagnose and certify drug dependence, it could lead to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment,” Hafizi told CodeBlue when contacted.

“This might worsen the situation for individuals, as they might not get the proper care needed. Proper diagnosis and treatment by trained professionals are crucial for effective rehabilitation and recovery.”

AADK Officers Should Be Trained By Psychiatrists To Diagnose Substance Abuse Disorder

Prof B. Vicknasingam from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Centre for Drug Research said the bill appears to make AADK solely responsible to diagnose substance use disorder (SUD).

“I am not sure if this is a good idea as AADK officers may not be competent to make this diagnosis. Drug use is a multi faceted problem and a more comprehensive approach is needed,” Vicknasingam told CodeBlue.

“Looking at a glance of the proposed amendment to the law, there seems to be inconsistencies and a lack of understanding in the terminology used to define someone who has a drug use disorder. What is disappointing is that there were no adequate consultation with experts and civil societies.”

Vicknasingam hopes that AADK officers will be trained and certified by MOH psychiatrists to be able to competently diagnose SUD.

“Ideally, a psychiatrist, health care worker or a psychologist should make this diagnosis. I hope as part of their implementation plan, AADK officers will be trained and certified by MOH psychiatrists to be able to competently diagnose SUD,” he said.

Vicknasignam is in the Expert Committee for Drug Dependence, World Health Organization (WHO) and Scientific Advisory Committee of the World Drug Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Hafizi thinks that multidisciplinary teams should assess individuals, including medical doctors, counsellors, psychologists, religious advisors, social workers, and legal experts.

“While the Home Ministry should focus on supply reduction, targeting dealers and importers, addiction should be treated as a health condition. The Ministry of Health, in collaboration with other ministries, needs to create a supportive system for people who use drugs and those with dependencies.

“This approach comprehensively evaluates their substance use and personalised treatment suggestions. Those with less severe issues can be directed to outpatient counsellors for brief intervention counselling and regular follow-ups, providing them with the necessary tools for recovery. This integrated approach can lead to more effective and humane treatment of substance use disorders in our country,” Hafizi said.

Interestingly, Section 18 of the Act will be amended to require registered medical practitioners, including government medical officers, to notify the Director General of any person treated for drug or substance dependence or misuse.

Overall, the amendment bill raises questions whether it genuinely aims to decriminalise drug use, given its requirement for mandatory rehab for those convicted of drug abuse, which is perceived as a form of incarceration or detention.

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